Mardi Gras: The Overlooked Environmental Assault

Like many people who made the pilgrimage to New Orleans, I was so excited to get to experience Mardi Gras with several thousand of my closest friends. Since Vandy’s spring break dates lined up with the festivities in New Orleans, a mini Vanderbilt reunion ensued as my classmates and I descended on to the city.

On the almost eight hour drive down, my roommate and I started sniffling and coughing in the car. We attributed our encroaching sickness to the car air. Fresh air in New Orleans would do us some good, we just had to get there. Get there we did. The drive was easy, until we reached the city limits of New Orleans, at which point the traffic picked up. My roommate and I were within a quarter-mile of our hotel, situated on Canal Street which (as we came to find out) is one of the main routes for parades, for two hours as we were rerouted around the city on streets that had not been closed for pedestrian foot traffic.

After parking the car, wrestling our several bags (we’re both compulsive overpackers) through a rambunctious and intoxicated crowd, we finally reached our hotel and collapsed onto the bed. Our colds were only getting worse. We decided to venture back out into the madness to get some NyQuil. As what would become the motto of our trip, we tried to get to a CVS, a three minute walk from our hotel, and were stopped on a street corner by a parade. Ninety minutes and twenty strings of beads later, we made it to CVS.

On our walk back, the parade had ended and people were starting to disperse for the night. As the crowds left Canal Street for Bourbon Street, I started noticing just how much trash littered the streets. Beads, plastic bags, plastic cups, light-up wands, totes, stuffed animals, balls, and other trinkets float riders threw out to the crowd covered the streets. Beads swung from the telephone lines and palm tree fronds and were piled in the street gutters. I watched as people navigated the piles of beads as one would navigate an icy street.

Considering all the craziness I witnessed from being on the street with hundreds of inebriated people, the trash accumulation every night remains the most shocking. The environmental assault that us tourists were bringing upon the city was heartbreaking, and something I think I was only acutely aware of because the only shots I was taking were of medicine for my cold. Others seemed to be completely oblivious to the trampled beads and plastic bags floating past in the wind.

Perhaps the second most shocking thing was that by morning, Canal Street would look like nothing from the night before had ever happened. Entire crews of hundreds of people in orange vests swept through the city as people congregated on Bourbon. In a matter of an hour, all the trash that had collected on the streets was gone. I was amazed as I watched the clean-up crew return Canal Street to its pre-parade state.

I did see some efforts to minimize the amount of waste that added up each night through recycling efforts. My hotel had a bin for people to donate beads to a local school that made art projects with them. And while I haven't done enough research, I’m sure there are some local artists who collect the thousands of beads discarded on the streets and repurpose them into sculptures and other projects.

Still, in the midst of all the celebration and partying, the environmental assault Mardi Gras visits on New Orleans was a depressing fact that I was not prepared to experience. I’ve thought about this a lot, the effects of weeks of partying on a city. How tourists descend on these sites and leave them slightly more destroyed.

I’m not sure what the answer is to reducing this kind of damage. Stopping Mardi Gras traditions would be like trying to stop the sun from rising, but being confronted with an environmental crisis caused solely by our desire to have a good time has made me consider the other, darker side to such festivities that we all like to take part in.