Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mardi Gras beads cause environmental hangover

Some green-thinking locals want New Orleans to recycle the tons of plastic necklaces that go flying during parades. But skeptics say it'll never happen.

Mardi Gras mess
Mardi Gras reveler Mike Turpin, whose night still isn't over, reacts as a front loader scoops up beads and other debris on Bourbon Street last year. Concerned over the estimated 25 million pounds of plastic beads that make their way to New Orleans each year, which can't be processed by traditional recycling centers, a few nonprofits are running programs that collect, bundle and resell them. (Patrick Semansky, Associated Press / February 15, 2012)
The beads were flying all around them, some pooling in the street, some caught by revelers and cherished for a moment — most of them destined, in all likelihood, for the landfill.

It was Mardi Gras 2011, and Kirk and Holly Groh were stationed in their family's traditional viewing spot downtown, where they had watched so many parades roll by in years past.

This time, they kept thinking what a waste it was.

Their hometown had never seemed more environmentally fragile. Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters had claimed their house in August 2005. Five years later, they watched their local fishmongers worry their way through the BP oil spill.

But then the undersea gusher was finally capped, and a few months later New Orleans was once again inundated with millions of pounds of Chinese-made, petroleum-based plastic beads — the iconic spoils of Mardi Gras.

"Nothing had changed," Holly said. "We were astonished, and just kind of dumbfounded."

The Grohs have since flung themselves into one of the nation's more esoteric — and, some would argue, futile — environmental crusades: Bringing a little conservationist restraint to the city's pre-Lenten orgy of excess, which this year falls on Feb. 21.

The movement, for now, is modest, and its concerns are myriad, but most of the effort has focused on the estimated 25 million pounds of plastic beads that make their way to the city every year.

The beads, of course, are central to the ritualized gift exchanges unique to Mardi Gras season, a multi-day series of parties and parades that brings an estimated million revelers to the streets for what is sometimes called "the Greatest Free Show on Earth." Members of Mardi Gras "krewes," the private social organizations that stage the parades, spend thousands to purchase the shiny baubles by the gross at local Carnival-themed superstores, then fling them to crowds who beg for them with the exclamation, "Throw me something, mister!"

In the touristy French Quarter, boozy packs of males stagger with beads stockpiled on their necks in the manner of Mr. T, infamously offering to bestow their gaudier strands on women who agree to flash a peek at their bare breasts.

But after the exchange is made, the beads' value plummets. The parade-goers — among them the sobered-up tourists returning to, say, Wichita — are left, in the end, with strands of junk.

Traditional recycling centers cannot process the beads. However, a few nonprofits in recent years have refined programs that collect, bundle and resell them. And this year, an unprecedented crop of initiatives has sprung up to help feed the recycled bead market, with most of the ideas as idiosyncratic as the city itself.

The Arc of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit that employs its mentally challenged clients in a bead-recycling program, introduced a trailer this season that will bring up the rear at some parades, encouraging revelers to throw back the trinkets they just caught with a slogan well-known to south Louisiana fishermen: "Catch and release."

In October, a local environmental group called LifeCity held a contest it dubbed "Green the Gras." The winning entrant proposed (but has not yet implemented) a system that would encourage the exchange of beads for tokens from businesses. The tokens could be used for a luxury most coveted on Mardi Gras day: the use of a clean bathroom.

On Feb. 11, the group the Grohs founded, Verdi Gras, tested a first-ever recycling pilot program with the blessing of city government, setting out bead collection bins along the route for the Krewe of Pontchartrain.

Like-minded revelers, about 130 of whom attended a Verdi Gras ball in January, imagine a future Carnival where more "throws" might be locally produced, handmade objets d'art. Kirk Groh, a 48-year-old lawyer, noted that the Krewe of Zulu's hand-painted coconuts are always among Mardi Gras' most coveted throws.

For these new activists, the deluge of beads is emblematic of regional attitudes about the environment that they wish to change. National green groups, which descended on Louisiana during the BP oil spill, often received a lukewarm reception from residents worried about the effect of stricter regulation on oil industry jobs. Before Katrina, New Orleans officials had discussed killing off the city's curbside recycling program because of low participation rates.

"It's a cultural thing," said Ryan F. Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. "We have a hard enough time convincing people to put their trash in the can."

Some locals argue that Mardi Gras — with its promise of mirth, misrule and the temporary abdication of responsibility — is no time to start a campaign of do-gooderism.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

15 Facts About the Paper Industry,

"Think of the hundreds of times a day we touch paper -- newspapers, cereal boxes, toilet paper, water bottle labels, parking tickets, streams of catalogs and junk mail, money, tissues, books, shopping bags, receipts, napkins, printer and copier paper at home and work, magazines, to-go food packaging. This list could fill a paperback."
Put another way, the 700-pound gorilla in the room is made of paper. The average American consumes more than 700 pounds of paper a year, anyway -- that's the world's highest per capita figure.
Here are 15 more facts about the environmental impact of the paper industry, courtesy -- as is the quote above -- of The State of the Paper Industry, a report published (on-line) today by the Environmental Paper Network. That is a coalition of environmental groups that aims to minimize paper consumption, maximize recycled content, source paper fiber responsibly and employ cleaner paper production practices. (And don't miss more than a dozen tips for reducing your own paper waste at the bottom of this post.)
  1. Forests store 50% of the world's terrestrial carbon. (In other words, they are awfully important "carbon sinks" that hold onto pollution that would otherwise lead to global warming.)
  2. Half the world's forests have already been cleared or burned, and 80% of what's left has been seriously degraded.
  3. 42% of the industrial wood harvest is used to make paper.
  4. The paper industry is the 4th largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions among United States manufacturing industries, and contributes 9% of the manufacturing sector's carbon emissions.
  5. Paper accounts for 25% of landfill waste (and one third of municipal landfill waste).
  6. Municipal landfills account for one third of human-related methane emissions (and methane is 23-times more potent a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide).
  7. If the United States cut office paper use by just 10% it would prevent the emission of 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gases -- the equivalent of taking 280,000 cars off the road.
  8. Compared to using virgin wood, paper made with 100% recycled content uses 44% less energy, produces 38% less greenhouse gas emissions, 41% less particulate emissions, 50% less wastewater, 49% less solid waste and -- of course -- 100% less wood.
  9. In 2003, only 48.3% of office paper was recovered for recycling.
  10. Recovered paper accounts for 37% of the U.S. pulp supply.
  11. Printing and writing papers use the least amount of recycled content -- just 6%. Tissues use the most, at 45%, and newsprint is not far behind, at 32%.
  12. Demand for recycled paper will exceed supply by 1.5 million tons of recycled pulp per year within 10 years.
  13. While the paper industry invests in new recycled newsprint and paper packaging plants in the developing world, almost none of the new printing and writing paper mills use recycled content.
  14. China, India and the rest of Asia are the fastest growing per-capita users of paper, but they still rank far behind Eastern Europe and Latin America (about 100 pounds per person per year), Australia (about 300 pounds per person per year) and Western Europe (more than 400 pounds per person per year).
  15. The Forest Stewardship Council's certification of sustainable forestry practices is growing, with 50% of the paper product market share and 226 million acres accounted for. Advocates say the demand for recycled paper and sustainably harvested pulp from consumers, advertisers, magazine makers and other users of paper will yield the fastest reforms of the industry.
To read a copy of the report, click here. And, please, don't print it out to read it.
Related Tips
Tweak Computer Settings Before Hitting "Print"
Use Cloth Dinner Napkins
Shred Used Office Paper for Packaging
Rediscover Your Local Library
Reuse Paper Bags
Biodegradable Doggie Bags
Be a Post-Consumer Consumer
Pay Bills Online
Use Dish Towels Instead of Paper Towels
Take One Step Toward a Paperless Office
Save a Bird: Buy Recycled Paper
Print Both Sides Now
Paper or Plastic? Say No to Both

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