NEW ORLEANS – Mardi Gras has officially made its return to New Orleans this week with celebrations that leave behind tons of waste every year.
In 2018, for example, the city reported collecting nearly 100,000 tons of beads from storm drains.
While the city's sanitation department will be focusing on cleanup efforts over the next several days — even weeks — beads are also given new life by a local nonprofit.
"In 2020, we received over 170 tons of donations," said Sherrana McGee-Stemley, manager of the Mardi Gras Bead Store. "That was our biggest haul yet, and now we're getting ready for even more."
From beads and boas to stuffed animals, ArcGNO's recycling center takes nearly everything that could be tossed from a parade float.
While millions of these items will wind up in landfills or the city's storm drains, ArcGNO's Mardi Gras Bead Store sells recycled beads to krewes for future parades.
"The cycle doesn't end at Mardi Gras," McGee-Stemley said. "In New Orleans, we know how to throw parades, so we have them all year long. Now we're getting ready for St. Patrick's Day."
ArcGNO has recycling bins across the greater New Orleans area where people can drop off their parade catches, but the nonprofit is focused on more than just sustainability.
The center's slogan is "We turn beads into jobs." It provides employment to those with disabilities.
"We employ them year round," McGee-Stemley said. "They get to come here every day with a regular job, getting a regular paycheck, just like we do, and we're able to support them in their everyday lives."
The proceeds from the bead store allow the nonprofit to not only offer the jobs, but also services, such as speech, occupational and physical therapy for children, and in-home services to help adults with disabilities become more independent. The group serves about 600 families.
"When people bring their beads here, they're doing so much more than just recycling," McGee-Stemley said. "They're helping over 600 families feel confident that their loves ones are in good hands because we have the funding to do so."