Purple, Gold, and an Even Greener Green

In parade after parade over the last two weeks, cries of “Throw me somethin’, mister!” have been heard across New Orleans and Mardi Gras-celebrating cities everywhere. Plastic beads, doubloons, and various brightly-colored tchotchkes are a hot commodity! Parades roll and spectators clamor for even more shiny strands adding to the pounds of plastic they’re already wearing. But what’s gonna happen to all that stuff after the midnight sweep going into Ash Wednesday?

Most Mardi Gras beads just end up in landfills. Or they end up clogged in storm drains, with 93,000 pounds of beads recently being fished out of catch basins along just five blocks of St. Charles Avenue (the main parade route in New Orleans) at a cost of $7 million. Myself, I’ve still got probably half a trash bag full of beads from when I lived there, and that’s after I gave a bunch away, raffled more off for a Katrina fundraiser, and I think I inadvertently left at least three more sacks in my closet when I moved.

That’s a lot of plastic, y’all.

But a biologist at Louisiana State University, Professor Naohiro Kato, is creating prototypes for 100% biodegradable Mardi Gras beads. If it works out, that’ll help keep them out of trash cans, catch basins, and closets alike. And it all happened by accident.

Oops, Let’s Do That Again

One of Kato’s students forgot to come into the lab one night to transfer algae samples between the centrifuge and freezer. The next morning, Kato found a big glob of algae accumulating oils in the bottom of the centrifuge – which is one of the ingredients used in producing bioplastics.

“A family friend who lives in New Orleans, they wanted to make the Mardi Gras celebrations more green,” he said, and he believes the results of this student’s forgetfulness just might lead to a new way to do so. He then started by growing a large quantity of microalgae in a simple kiddie pool outside, of a sort that could make 100% biodegradable Mardi Gras beads.

A gallon of microalgae only makes a few beads, so you need huge quantities to make such a bead-based business commercially successful. We’re talking quantities you’d grow in a pond the size of a football field. Luckily, Louisiana’s climate is one in which this microalgae can easily thrive. The state’s existing rice, crawfish, and aquaculture industries also mean that infrastructure exists that could sustainably support a biodegradable-bead business. To grow such a business, they can take advantage of tools like those new business cards.

Grow Green to Get Green

These biodegradable beads cost approximately three times as much as regular plastic beads. But the microalgae is, fortunately, a profitable one due to its use in the nutraceutical industry in making vegetarian capsules. Kato plans to take advantage of that fact to help offset the price difference and make biodegradable beads competitive.

He has a patent pending to make beads entirely out of microalgae using biomass left unused by the nutraceutical industry. He has also launched a spinoff company to support the bead business.

Grad student Ruth Ndathe noted that “we would save the environment from a lot of trash that’s there every Mardi Gras.” Fellow grad student Gabela Nelson added that “even though it might be a little bit less profitable, in the long run it’ll be very profitable for the Earth.”

Laissez le bon temps (durable) rouler!

Are you ready to go to the Mardi Gras?

This video is entirely unrelated to biodegradable beads, but ya gotta get right for Mardi Gras so listen up! 

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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