Until recent years, city officials measured a Carnival season’s success by the amount of trash collected from the streets. But employees at Arc of Greater New Orleans' Mardi Gras Recycling Center prefer a different rubric: pounds of beads recycled each year.
On Twelfth Night, ArcGNO celebrated the grand opening of its newly expanded recycling center with a ribbon-cutting, king cake tasting and dance performance by The NOLA Cherry Bombs. A built-out storefront at the site on 925 S. Labarre Road in Metairie and new bead-processing system mean the recycling initiative is more efficient — and more shopper-friendly — than ever before.
“Last year was a bonanza year in bead collection. We sorted and packaged 221,000 pounds of beads,” said Stephen Sauer, executive director of ArcGNO. “This year, our goal is 310,000 pounds.”
That’s a 28.8 percent increase in bead business, an ambitious goal that Kathy Brown, senior director of quality assurance, feels confident she and her team can meet. Together with corporate partner Shell, Brown created a new system for sorting, banding and selling recycled beads.
Avoiding tangles was the biggest challenge.
“I created trees out of PVC pipe on rollers with dowels, so (workers and volunteers) can sort through beads by length and type,” Brown said.
“Three board members who work at Shell downtown sent their logistics team and analyzed the whole process,” Sauer said. “They mapped it all out with their genius of moving cargo across the world, and we’re applying their plan step by step.”
“But it’s easier to move cargo across the world than to get people to move beads into crawfish sacks,” Brown added, laughing.
Beads arrive at ArcGNO’s warehouse in giant, pallet-sized boxes. Working alongside volunteers, employees take the beads from tangled mess to neat displays sorted by length and type. Pearl beads, petite beads, krewe-specific beads, boas, spears, plush toys and other trinkets are for sale in the colorful, muraled storefront. Muses shoes can be had for $1 each, and prices for a 30-pound sack of beads start at $20.
“It’s not really difficult, but untangling them, you have to have patience and deal with it,” said Tina Brown, a bead sorter who's been with Arc for 28 years.
Tina Brown is one of 85 people employed by the Mardi Gras Recycling Center, an ArcGNO social enterprise. These nonprofit businesses provide job opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Employees are paid minimum wage or more.
“At the beginning, we sorted beads as a way to fill people’s days,” Sauer says. “But there’s a growing awareness of recycling post (Hurricane) Katrina and an opportunity to make this something more than it had been.”
This year, ArcGNO launches a new recycling program in partnership with YLC Recycles. The organizations will distribute recycling bags along a 35-block stretch of the Uptown parade route on the mornings of Feb. 3 and Feb. 11. Their truck follows the krewes of Thoth and Freret, collecting the bags.
“We’re hoping that, at the end of the parade, the sacks we distributed earlier in the day will be full of beads that have never touched the ground,” Sauer said.
Corporations including Krispy Kreme, Uber and Crown Royal have signed on to collect beads. Last year, more than 3,568 volunteers, mostly out-of-towners, helped sort beads. Sauer hopes more New Orleanians will participate in the initiative in 2018.
“It is central to our mission to get more locals involved in the recycling process,” Sauer said.
Interacting with volunteers and coworkers is Tina Brown’s favorite part of the job.
“I’m a people person. It's a lot of fun sorting beads and just having fun,” she said. “That’s what we do, we have fun.”
ArcGNO’s Mardi Gras Recycling Center has expanded its hours, opening from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. An online store launches soon.