New Orleans and Mobile dispute where Mardi Gras was birthed, but both Gulf Coast cities struggle with the same plastic waste. How can they design a greener carnival?

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News. It is republished with permission. Sign up for the newsletter here.

MOBILE, Ala.—The trees tell the tale.

In the weeks before Lent, their branches begin to glisten in the late winter sunlight. The parades begin, and day after day, the beads make their landing, tangling themselves—purple, green, and golden plastic—in often-bare limbs.

The streets speak, too.

As the good times roll at Mardi Gras, float by float, the throws filter through the crowd to the roads and sidewalks below—beads, trinkets, and Moon Pies—covering the ground in a layer of rejected dreams, the pre-Lenten loot that didn’t quite make it into spectators’ plastic Piggly Wiggly bags and Winn-Dixie totes lining the miles-long parade route in the Gulf Coast city’s downtown.

Then an effort at cleanup begins. An army of city workers in neon vests a hundred strong marches down the street in a show of municipal force rarely seen in Southern cities. But on these days each year, the city makes a way out of no way. So, as the fleet of floats comes to an end, the workers disassemble the barricades that had held the crowds back from the parade route. Another crew follows with leaf blowers, pushing the debris from where the crowds had been minutes earlier, off the sidewalks and into the streets where the next step of the process would soon start.

Next, the jets come. White trucks, “hydroforce” painted across their side, spray water onto the debris now thickening in the roadways. The slurry of beads and baubles begins to shine under the streetlights. Streetsweeping trucks zip along the route, their drivers struggling to suck up the festering fun. It often isn’t enough. In the end, it’s city workers with boots on the ground who do the backbreaking work of the final walk. Pile by pile, they use shovels, brushes, and rakes to cross the finish line. Nearly all the debris—in 2023, a total of around 300 tons of it—heads to the landfill. A similar brute force clean-up takes place 140 miles west in New Orleans.

The next day, it all begins again.

David Dai knows where this all leads.

Dai, a former Alabama high school teacher of the year, spends his days along Route A, teaching at Barton Academy, a public magnet school for grades 6-9.

He knows that Mardi Gras season is only the beginning. He knows that despite the brief, Herculean effort at cleanup, some beads will stay, their vibrant colors slowly dulling as they dangle from the oaks or linger in the storm drains. He knows that come next January, before a single parade rolls down Government Boulevard, the trees and streets will already tell the tale. He knows it needs to change.

Colorful plastic beads have become the most recognizable Mardi Gras throw across the Gulf Coast. The stringed beads, often sourced from China, can contain lead, heavy metals, and other materials that can be toxic to humans, particularly children. Tens of millions of pounds of Chinese-made plastic beads are imported to the Gulf Coast for Mardi Gras annually, a cheap but vast loot of plastic throws that only increases in volume each year.

Dai is one of a growing number of Mobilians and New Orleanians envisioning a greener Mardi Gras. He thinks about it as he directs school traffic in the morning a block off the parade route, picking up broken beads and flattened, plastic-wrapped Moon Pies along the way.

“We need a transformation of tradition, a challenging of the status quo,” Dai said just outside the school in Mobile.

Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies, a relatively new magnet school, has attracted teaching talent from across the district and beyond. That recruiting effort brought teachers like Dai to Barton, which is housed in a renovated historic building that served as the first public school in Alabama and more recently was the home of the district’s central office.

Dai grew up in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a small fishing town in south Mobile County where he’d moved from California with his parents, Vietnamese immigrants, in first grade. He grew up translating for his parents and their friends, explaining their bills and other documents to them when he could, even being the go-between at parent-teacher conferences. Dai said the experience made him understand the value of service early on—putting the community’s needs in front of his own.

It’s that kind of service, a shared commitment to making the community better, that he hopes can lead to the rebirth of Mardi Gras in Mobile and beyond. It’s why he’s running an elective course, new this year, where students plan to engineer a more eco-friendly design for the ubiquitous carnival bead.

In a 2020 statement, the Center for Environmental Health noted “growing concern” about the health hazards and the environmental cost of millions of pounds of plastic beads manufactured in China for Mardi Gras, many of which contain lead and flame retardants.

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