Mardi Gras is a bucket-list experience, but it's also extremely wasteful. Here are practical tips to enjoy the festivities more responsibly!
Mardi Gras is without a doubt one of the most iconic celebrations in the United States. It’s one of those things that is on EVERYONE’S bucket list! It was certainly on mine; and two years ago I was lucky enough to experience it with my sister who attends college in New Orleans.
But there’s a major issue with Mardi Gras celebrations:
They are MASSIVELY wasteful.
Between the classic Mardi Gras beads (tons and TONS of them), signature plastic drink cups on Bourbon Street, and trash left behind by parade-goers on the streets, waste is a serious problem.
And I don’t think Mardi Gras should just stop existing, or people should stop attending, or even that you shouldn’t have fun when you go! But the problem of Mardi Gras waste is something we as tourists (and New Orleans locals) should not take lightly. Here’s how to enjoy Mardi Gras in a more conscious way.
Take it easy on the beads
According to this article by National Geographic, 46 tons of discarded beads were collected by the NOLA Sanitation Department in 2018. And, oh yeah, that was just from an area no larger than 5 BLOCKS. That’s unbelievably absurd. So whether you’re visiting for the celebrations in New Orleans or hosting your own Mardi Gras party at home, rethink purchasing cheap plastic beads.
“No, thank you!”
Recycle your beads year after year
If you’ve attended parades or parties in the past and you’ve got a stash of beads sitting in your closet somewhere, bring them out to reuse them this year! Or if this will be your first time, hang on to any beads that you collect so you can reuse them in the future. Maybe for when you host your own Mardi Gras party! But the most important thing is to NOT leave them in the street or simply throw them away. There are more than enough beads on this Earth today than society will ever need again, so let’s keep reusing what we have.
Choose to use more sustainable beads
There’s been a lot of talk about the possibility of biodegradable beads in the future, but from all I can tell, they have not been created just yet. Bummer. But a sustainable option that DOES exist is glass beads. They’re not super mainstream, and not nearly as widely available as plastic beads, but they are actually authentic in a vintage and nostalgic way. According to this article by LSU Now, the bead tradition started in 1950, and these first beads were made of glass, produced primarily in Czechoslovakia. As you can imagine, the production of glass beads became far too expensive, hence the plastic bead mayhem we have today. But hey! This is a perfect opportunity to make an even more sustainable choice by purchasing secondhand vintage glass beads!
Pass on the Bourbon Street drink cups
Bourbon Street is famous for, a lot, of things – one of them being the high number of bars with their own unique signature drink. Think Hurricanes, Hand Grenades, and Frozen Daiquiris. And so many of these drinks come in really big, themed, plastic cups. They’re usually so outrageously shaped and colored and branded that it wouldn’t make sense to reuse them at home. Unless you’re into that sort of thing I suppose, but that’s just not my aesthetic.
Plastic is used so frequently on Bourbon Street and around the French Quarter because of New Orlean’s open container law. It requires that anybody drinking on the sidewalks must do so out of plastic containers. And that’s part of what makes New Orleans so appealing to tourists! The ability to drink freely in the middle of the street, and thus the never-ending party atmosphere. So, what can you do instead?
Ask for glass
You shouldn’t miss out on trying all the famous cocktails, so simply ask for your hand grenade or your hurricane to be served in a glass! Sure, you won’t be able to wander outside with it, but all those bars are so open it’ll feel like you’re in the street anyway. Or, if you do want one of those signature cups, reuse it! Ask for a refill in the same cup and make sure you bring it home at the end of the day!
This is a bad example. Ryan had initially asked for one beer, but didn’t say anything when the bartender began pouring a second. This is also classic Ryan 😉
Bring your own drinks
Bring your own cans of beer, wine, liquor, whatever your heart desires – just bring it with you! Literally nobody will judge you or even bat an eye. This is New Orleans, after all! If you don’t want to spend the entire weekend sampling different combinations of liquor and sugary mixers, then you should definitely bring your own beer or wine. You’ll not only save money, but you’ll spare a plastic cup (or ten).
Enjoy parades responsibly
Parade routes produce an absolutely obscene amount of trash. Some of it is from parade “throws,” which are the beads and other silly plastic trinkets thrown by the floats. But some of it is garbage, plastic bottles, food containers, and whatever else people elect to leave behind. This type of trash is just completely unacceptable to me. It’s even worse when people leave recyclables in the street, because now there’s no chance that they actually get recycled. They’ll just be scooped up along with the rest of the garbage.
Bring a backpack packed with essentials
The good thing about bringing a backpack (or any bag for that matter) ensures that yes, you can pack things to bring, but you also have a way to responsibly bring things home. This goes for beads (which you can reuse for years to come), your empty drink containers, or any other recyclables you accumulate along the way.
What to pack:
You will NEED to hydrate throughout the day, I can promise you that. That is, if you choose to indulge. And by packing your own bottle, you won’t need to buy 10 plastic water bottles throughout the day.
It’s easier to drink cocktails out of a straw, don’t you think? Bring your own and make sure you let the bartender know so they don’t automatically assume you want one!
Reusable Bag (these ones are cute!)
Just in case your bag becomes too packed with stuff, having a little foldable, reusable bag will be handy as a back-up! It takes up almost no space and is practically weightless, so it can’t hurt to bring.
Your own Mardi Gras beads/gear!
Regardless of the fact that you will inevitable come into possession of beads from parade throws, bringing your own ensures you won’t feel compelled to purchase any. Which brings me to…
Be Mindful About Your Souvenir Purchases
The only thing that might outnumber bars on Bourbon Street are souvenir shops. And they are absolutely filled with plastic. More beads, of course, but also your typical souvenir shop stuff. And by the way, if you’d like an idea of how to get free souvenirs from your travels, check out my blog post on that here! It’ll give you a good idea of memories you can bring home that don’t involve plastic headed for the landfill.
As far as souvenirs from New Orleans or Mardi Gras in particular go, a great thing to bring home is a taste of New Orleans famous cajun cuisine! Food and drink products are perfect because they doesn’t last forever (no clutter, no landfill), and what better way to really feel like you’re back there again? We found this amazing hot sauce place right near the French Market where you could sample every. single. thing. in the store. And don’t forget about the iconic Cafe du Monde! Get one of their beignet mixes and a can of coffee to host a NOLA-themed brunch back home!
So what do you think – are these practical tips for enjoying a more waste-free Mardi Gras? What are your own favorite tips to enjoy the festivities more sustainably?