Solution journalism spring 2023: No room for garbage

Part I: The Problem

“After the last parade on Mardi Gras Day, folks tend to say a final goodbye to their Mardi Gras investments and leave them on the parade route…The number of perfectly good ladders, tents, coolers, tables, and leftover food we remove is astonishing.”

Matt Tori, the director of the New Orleans Department of Sanitation 

Every year, the aftermath of Mardi Gras leads to extreme waste, with about 25 million pounds of plastic beads. According to City Hall, there are about 500 people working daily to clean up the trash during Mardi Gras; however, if the parades are very busy, the amount of workers doubles. At just a single parade, there can be as many as 8 to 10 garbage trucks, 6 front-end loaders, 4 street flushers and between 6 and 10 pressure-washers. Additionally, there are street sweepers, pishers, blowers, skid steers and roll-off trucks.

One year, it was reported by The Department of Sanitation, that over a 100 different pieces of equipment were used to clean the streets after the parade. In order to clean the parade in an efficient manner, The Department of Sanitation uses a “divide and conquer” technique. Since the trash cans in the French Quarter are only serviced seven days a week between 4:00am and 8:00am, the trash cans tend to overflow, which means there is more trash than the bin can hold, resulting in trash all over the streets.

During the Mardi Gras season, it is estimated that there are almost 1,000 tons of trash and 40 tons of that goes into the storm drain. The garbage that does not fit in the trash cans ends up clogging the storm drains which then leads to flooding in the streets. The tradition of throwing beads, which were originally made from cheap glass, started with the Rex Parade in the 1920s, but then shifted to plastic in the 1970s. The plastic objects they are throwing are only used once, and it is costing the city of New Orleans millions of dollars in cleanup, and furthermore, it shows that there really is no such thing as throwing something “away.” Even if it is “recyclable” it does not always actually get recycled. For example, over 90% of recyclable plastics end up in landfills and waterways which eventually get dumped into the ocean.

Trash from Mardi Gras, on Canal Street, New Orleans. (Photo by: Nick Solari/Wikimedia Commons)

By not properly disposing of your trash, by way of recycling or placing it in garbage bins, this can lead to environmental issues such as harmful air emissions released into the environment, ecosystems being in danger of toxicity in the soil and the polluting of marine life, thus all leading to human ingestion of toxins. In 2018, it was stated that 93,000 pounds of plastic beads were clogging the storm drains lining St. Charles Avenue, which is where approximately 30 parades are located during Mardi Gras. Almost every minute, a truckload of plastics is dumped into the waterways, more specially the ocean, because they are connected to the storm drains.

Mark Benfield, an oceanography professor at Louisiana State University said, “From the storm sewers, they go into the pumping system and would be pumped out into the canals and ultimately the river.” He had been using a drone to see how much plastic pollution is in the Gulf of Mexico, and he found that the Gulf has one of the world’s largest concentrations of microplastics, which are about 5mm or less in size, the size of a Mardi Gras Bead. Research has shown that beads from Mardi Gras are toxic, and contain lead, arsenic, phthalate plasticizers, halogens,cadmium,chromium, mercury, chlorine and brominated flame retardants. Back in 2012, the beads were tested with an XRF instrument and the results were Lead (PB) 15,800 ppm and Cadmium (Cd) 2,028 ppm, but since it was in 2012, they did not test for any heavy metals. For lead to be considered toxic it has to contain anything from 90 ppm or higher in the paint and coating and even though the bag of beads say “not intended for children under 12 years old,” the individual beads do not say anything. The lead can be in the coating and in the plastic of the bead, and it is often seen that these beads are in children’s mouths, putting them at high risk. The neurotoxin, lead, can cause irreversible brain damage if a child were to put the beads in its mouth.

Also, it was found that 920,000 pounds of mixed chlorinated and brominated flame retardants were in these beads. The brominated flame retardants can cause major health issues such as immunotoxicity, endocrine disruption, compromised thyroid and neurological function, reproductive toxicity, negative effects on child development, and cancer. Another study by, Ann Arbor Ecology Center, found that the beads used during Mardi Gras are made out of dead electronics and computer equipment that America ships to China for disposal. Chinese companies then crush and melt the electronics and form them into beads, cover them with lead paint and ship them back to the United States with all the cancer-causing toxins like neurotoxins, flame retardants, arsenic, cadmium, and other cancer-causing agents. Being exposed to lead can increase the risk of lung, stomach and urinary-bladder cancer. Also, cadmium is associated with lung, prostate, kidney and pancreatic cancer.

There have been efforts to make the plastic beads more safe; however, an Ecology Center study found that these beads are made up of thousands of pounds of hazardous chemicals, especially flame retardants and lead, and can be connected to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity and cancer. Two thirds of Mardi Gras beads have been tested and have exceeded the federal safety limit for lead in children’s products. Most of the beads that are given out during Mardi Gras have tested positive for both lead and cadmium

Part II: The Solution

Germany has the highest rating among all countries when it comes to waste management. Germany is the top recycler in the European Union due to their mandatory recycling system. In 2012, Germany introduced the Circular Economy Act, enabling them to increase their recycling rates from 56% to 65%. Later, in 2019, the recycle rate went up again and reached a high of  67%. Residents of Germany manage their waste starting in their household and most are zero waste inclined

They separate their household waste by the country’s recycling system rules, which are separating their trash into six bins. There are bins for food waste, plastic waste, and other types of garbage, more specifically, the yellow bin is for plastic, the white bin is for clear glass, the green is for green glass, the brown is for brown glass, the blue is for paper waste and the last bin is for organic and food waste. With this system in place, it makes it much easier for recycling plants to maintain and establish recycling processes

Germany also has some waste-to-energy recycling plants running. This means that Germany is reusing their waste to create energy for households and commercial industries. Due to the recycling system that is put in place in Germany, the waste that is sent to landfills has reduced a significant amount. Germany’s government also uses the Deposit Refund System, The 1991 Packaging Ordinance, The Green Dot System and the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act of 1996, which all manage plastic pollution and produce less waste.

Many North American and South Australian states, as well as 10 European nations, have put The Deposit Refund System into place. Within this system, bottles that can be recycled are labeled, and once the user purchases them, the consumer pays a deposit, which ranges from €0.08 to €0.25. This amount is then reimbursed once the empty bottle is returned to a retail store. “One-way” plastic bottles are higher in price than reusable glass and plastic bottles. The reusable bottles deposit does not usually exceed €0.015 but is enough to get the consumer to return the bottle for recycling. These are strategic ways to encourage consumers to buy the less expensive bottles and return them for money. This system has proven extremely effective in certain countries, in particular, Germany, which is evidenced by reaching a 98.4% return rate since the system was put into place. This system reduces littering, but also increases bottle recycling which helps industries and consumers to be more sustainable. In 2022, Germany’s Federal Government slightly changed the system in that starting in 2024, milk and dairy containers will also be subject to a deposit

Germany has changed the waste system significantly when they passed three major policies, where manufacturers and private industries are responsible for eliminating waste and covering the costs. The first major policy is The Packaging Ordinance of 1991, which is binding requirements to manufacturers for the recycling and recovery of sales packaging. It includes packaging from transportation, primary packaging such as cans, and secondary packaging such as carton boxes which cans are sold in. The Ordinance was replaced by the Packaging Act, in 2019, which consists of new recycling rates and targets. The fees that are mandatory for packing producers and distributors are still in place, however, German companies now also have to be listed in the Central Agency Packaging Register, where they routinely have to report their products’ masses and materials. The next system is called the The Green Dot System, which is where manufacturers are forced to put a green label outside of packaging, which indicates that it must be accepted by recycling facilities. Producers must pay a fee to the Dual System Germany, a public-private partnership for the collection of waste which is to be picked up privately alongside the municipal waste collection services.

Today, more than 460 billion packages are labeled with the Green Dot. Lastly, the Closed Substance Cycle and Management Act of 1996 was put into place. This act made it a requirement to those who produce, market and consume goods to be in control of the avoidance, reuse, recycling. This has made companies reconsider their production system, ensuring that their products are created with recyclable materials. In 2012, the act was revised and Germany adopted the Circular Economy Act, which made manufacturers and distributors promote producer responsibility. In addition to these policies, Germany also put into place a ban on Single-Use Plastics and Plastic Bags in 2019. Following this, Germany also introduced stricter rules on single-use plastics, not allowing manufacturers to create or import these types of plastics.  

Part III: The Implementation 

Germany, with its rigid trash system, has been able to establish a circular economy, that of recycling & reuse, creating a highly positive effect on the protection of soil, air, water, and human health. Because Germany has three major policies that are strictly enforced and put into place regarding their trash system, people tend to abide by the rules. As compared to New Orleans, where this city has 14 city code requirements regarding trash, it lacks a strong enforcement of the rules. According to the Department of Sanitation, New Orleans city-contracted sanitation companies have not been fined for missed garbage collections and trash being left on the streets since 2010. There should be punitive consequences such as a $200 fine to the citizens for leaving trash behind and not recycling if the item requires it. Sanitation companies should also be fined, however, at a higher rate, of $1000 per day for missed garbage collections and leaving trash behind. Since there are currently no consequences for leaving one’s trash behind, people continue to jam up the city with garbage without any regard to cleaning up after themselves.

Post Mardi Gras, trash clean up. (Photo by: William Gunn/Wikimedia Commons)

Taken from a successful policy in Germany, such as The Green Dot System, a resident can receive a dollar per item turned in for recycling during and after Mardi Gras. In addition to New Orleans creating more laws and enforcing them, prior to every Mardi Gras parade, the members of each Krewe should be given a maximum number of items that they are permitted to throw. Keeping the maximum down can help to alleviate the amount of trash that is found on the ground after the parade. Also, a requirement must be put into place regarding throws, such that the criteria of quality standards must be met, for example, the item must be recyclable, contain zero toxins and must be sustainable.

If the throws were to be of higher quality, more people would save or recycle them, instead of throwing them away or leaving them on the ground. Back in 2019, Naohiro Kato, a Louisiana State University Professor, created biodegradable beads and doubloons for Mardi Gras, made from algae. Additionally, an organization called Grounds Krewe sells Local Flavor Consumable Throws, which are biodegradable and reusable bags, filled with coffee beans, red beans and a mix of jambalaya beans. Using these ingredients, one can cook and eat or brew the beans. This same organization sells Mardi Gras accessories made from their artisans and companies, like the Belize Co-Op Seed Bead Necklaces, which are biodegradable and naturally dyed, made from red palm trees by a cooperative in Belize, Epiphany Throws’ Demeter Necklaces, which are necklaces produced from polished and dyed acai beads, Epiphany Throws’ circe Headbands, which are created from recycled cotton and Atlas Handmade Beads’ Paper Beads which are made from recycled magazine paper and produced by women in Uganda.

Freeman Kelly, an artist, stated “Lots of people are talking about creative ways of making Mardi Gras more sustainable, and when you get that level of excitement, it’s hard not to have it be contagious.” She continues to say “There has always been a handmade element to Mardi Gras…But people are thinking more about handmade work and less waste. Lisette Constantin, NOLA Craft Culture owner, says that Krewes have been interested in having natural throws. Members of some krewes, such as Chewbaccus, Boheme, Krewe du Vieux and ‘tit Rex, have been creating homemade throws, with recycled materials and resin. For instance, Muses has been the leader in throwing functional items such as soap, socks, pens, notebooks, scarves and so on. Beads can cost anywhere from $25 to $40 per case, however, the Krewes can make their own throws using recyclable materials, and save a substantial amount of money. The extra savings can go towards additional cleaning crews during and after Mardi Gras. Dues are collected annually from every Krewe member, ranging between $1000 and $3000, to pay for the ride, insurance, costumes and a ticket to their debutante ball. In addition to these incidentals, a mandatory amount of additional money should be collected from each member and dedicated to paying residents of New Orleans to encourage them to clean up after the parades, instead of a potential fine. If a member of a Krewe does not agree to this, they will be banned from participating in the parade the following year.

The Department of Sanitation currently holds meetings with parade participants prior to the event in order to ask them to keep and recycle their own boxes and beads. If the participants do not want to keep their leftover beads, they can give them to Arc of Greater New Orleans, which is a nonprofit organization that has services for children and adults with disabilities, or they can drop them in one of the bead recycling bins that are along the parade routes. However, this clearly does not work well enough because there are still massive amounts of trash left on the ground each year. The city of New Orleans rarely recycles, more specifically, New Orleans only recycles 3 percent of waste, which is one-tenth of the national average. In order to increase recycling during the Mardi Gras season, these throws must be recyclable and there must be an incentive to recycle them, such as financial rewards. If part of the dues were to be put into the trash system, if more laws and policies were strongly enforced, like in Germany, then eventually there would be less trash and cleaner streets in the city of New Orleans.


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