Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a famously unholy mess. After the 2018 celebration, some wondered if it had gone too far. Apart from bacchanalian excess, the parade left behind 950 tons of debris in souvenirs, trash and beads, reported the Times-Picayune. City crews after the holiday hauled up 46 tons of beads alone that clogged water catch basins across the city.
You could say the party is a microcosm of our global problem with plastics, with waste plastic growing in the world’s oceans, and landfills piling up with stuff that refuses to decompose. The plastics industry continues to boom, spending an estimated $180 billion to build over 260 new plastic factories by 2025 in the United States alone, increasing plastic production by one third, according to biologist Susan Shaw, founder and president of the Shaw Institute. “It’s estimated we’re putting 8 million tons of plastics into the ocean every year,” she notes, “and it lasts for hundreds of years in the environment.”
Alternatives include “organic plastics” from plant materials that decompose. The technical challenge is complicated by an economic hurdle: making plant-based plastics that are both biodegradable and commercially viable.
Naohiro Kato, a molecular biologist and professor at Louisiana State University, is starting with biodegradable Mardi Gras beads. Read my article about Dr. Kato’s new venture in Smithsonian magazine now.