By Matt Starlight
As Mardi Gras quickly approaches, the avalanche of beads that flood the streets and sewers of New Orleans and Baton Rouge are imminent. Each year, tens of thousands of pounds of beads and other throws are discarded into landfills and add to the ever growing pile of trash that the country is creating on a second-to-second basis.
Although some people will pile the fruits of their drunken labor into a plastic container and stash them in the attic for some unforeseen occasion, most of us will either leave them in the street or dump them into a trashcan. There are, however, some who seek more environmentally friendly and creative ways to use the beads that you catch.
Raina Wirta, the Creative Director of the Elevator Projects, is one such person. When she’s not running the nonprofit creative organization, she’s repurposing used Mardi Gras beads into art like chandeliers, curtains and jewelry.
“I made a bead curtain a couple years ago and every year I make a hat for the Spanish town parade,” said Wirta. “I love costumes, I love dressing up, I love jewelry, I love accessories, I love Carnival season and I love to party.”
The idea to put the beads to use came gradually, but has since flourished into a series of pieces for sale.
“It’s something I’ve always been thinking about, you know, because we have copious amounts of beads everywhere,” said Wirta. “They ended up getting thrown away and they go back into the landfills. So it’s like, ‘Well they are actually quite beautiful. Even though they are plastic pieces of crap, we can find some way that we can reuse them.’”
Wirta explained that she sees great complexity in the variety and shape of the beads available, and although most people will “pick them up and wear them for that day and be loaded down with beads and then trash them,” there is a different path that they can take to avoid becoming waste.
“Ultimately, it’s up cycling. It’s recycling. Really, it’s making something that is a lot more profound,” said Wirta. “There is so much of it that it almost becomes ubiquitous and you don’t even stop to look at them. It is just part of our waste culture. I see the beauty in it.”
Wirta isn’t the only person putting one man’s trash to good use. German-born artist Stephan Wanger moved to New Orleans from Chicago to help as a carpenter after Hurricane Katrina and started making murals out of used beads.
“I saw quickly that I wanted to do something about these beads, and at the same time also promote New Orleans, the region a little bit more because there’s a whole lot more to Carnival than just Bourbon Street, right?” said Wanger. “It’s just so family oriented when people all gather on the neutral grounds all day long having barbeques and watching the parades go by. So that is what I’m trying to communicate with the artwork.”
Having been inspired by the New Orleans citizens’ enthusiasm for his murals, Wanger began the Bead Town organization dedicated to educating via workshops anyone interested in creatively reusing materials.
“There were so many requests from schools and other communities and other events for these workshops, you know,” said Wanger. “People wanted to learn how to make artwork out of Mardi Gras beads because everybody has these and they are very whimsical and touching and the excitement of the beads is still there even though there’s not a parade around.”
Wanger now travels throughout the country teaching groups about how he makes his murals, but also about the underlying need to recycle and reuse products for the safety of the planet.
“The community building aspect of how we can collectively take care of the environment is extremely important and I think that it’s the best way to tackle and find solutions for future problems that we might have,” said Wanger.
The creative arts aren’t the only way to recycle Mardi Gras beads. The Arc of Greater New Orleans partners with local businesses to collect bead donations. They then employ intellectually handicapped workers to sort the beads for resale the following year.
“We have people with intellectual disabilities on staff and we pay them an hourly rate of minimum wage or higher to sort the beads and then we resell them to people the following Carnival season,” said Margie Perez, the Mardi Gras bead recycling coordinator for the Arc of Greater New Orleans. “We recycled 175,000 pounds of beads last year and we hope to up that to 200,000 pounds next year.”
Although thousands of pounds of beads go to waste each year, with people like these working to prevent contributions to the ever-growing trash problem, change may be on the way.