Every year during New Orleans’ iconic Carnival season, Mardi Gras parades carry out a simple, but powerful ritual: float riders tempt spectators below with strands of colorful plastic beads, while those spectators do everything in their power to catch them. Time stops, and suddenly, a successful, mid-air snag seems like the most important thing in the world.
But as fundamental as beads are to Carnival in the Big Easy, they leave behind a mess, triggering a growing number of Louisiana scientists and activists to look for solutions. Most beads ultimately end up in landfills or in catch basins. In 2018, the City of New Orleans extracted 46 tons of beads from the sewers below a five-block area of Canal Street, a popular parade thoroughfare. That’s only a small slice of greater New Orleans, where dozens of parades roll annually. Moreover, bead-throwing parades take place in countless other Louisiana cities.
Now, a promising solution could help one of the globe’s biggest cultural celebrations become greener. LSU Associate Professor of Biology Naohiro Kato has developed a formula for biodegradable bead production using material extracted from algae. The beads will be commercially available during the 2021 Mardi Gras season through a new company called Microalgae LLC, which will also release 3,000 prototype beads in spring 2020. The prototypes will give Carnival krewes, or the groups who host floats, a chance to evaluate this more sustainable option and even place future orders.
Kato, a plant cell biologist at LSU’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge, stumbled onto the formula for creating biodegradable beads from algae accidentally. A student was conducting experiments on microalgae and the oil it can produce, and inadvertently left a sample out that should have gone into a freezer. The result was a surprising uptick in oil production. Algae oil can be converted into biofuels and other products, and Kato suspected it could be used to make a biodegradable plastic. He successfully developed a formula by mixing the microalgae oil with oxidants that trigger polymerization, ultimately hand-molding beads out of the substance. Kato continued to work on the formula, and refined his research to the point where he has been able to apply for a patent.
To help scale the project, Kato teamed with Louisiana-based custom plastics manufacturer, Noble Plastics, to produce a bead capable of biodegrading in about a year’s time. Noble can produce 33’ strands with lettering stamped on beads to spell out the name of the krewe, year and other messages. The beads can be manufactured in a variety of colors, including Mardi Gras’s traditional purple, green and gold. Kato is also planning to fabricate biodegradable coins known as doubloons, another Mardi Gras float throw traditionally made in inexpensive plastic.
Over the course of his career, Kato’s research has centered on global food security and nano-pharmaceuticals. In fact, he’s studied algae as a possible replacement for fish oil in the production of Omega 3, which represents a sustainable, long-term option for the supplement in the face of global over-fishing.
Focusing on algae’s use in biodegradable beads stemmed from his personal interest in the Mardi Gras phenomenon. It’s hard to live in Louisiana without getting swept into the Carnival orbit, and Kato, like many transplants, came to enjoy the annual festivities. But when a family friend in New Orleans founded a Mardi Gras recycling initiative called Verdi Gras, he began thinking about why the beads thrown from floats weren’t already biodegradable in the first place.
“It was really a question of cost,” Kato says. “Floats don’t have corporate sponsors that might get good PR out of going sustainable, so there hasn’t been incentive to pay for more expensive biodegradable beads, which can be 10 times the cost of regular plastics.”
With algae as a base ingredient, cost could conceivably come down, say Kato. Algae is plentiful in Louisiana, a state already awash in aquaculture. It could be that many crawfish and rice farmers in South Louisiana, who rotate production of these two crops in ponds, could also integrate harvesting algae. Furthermore, Kato suggests that a company producing nutraceuticals from algae could use byproduct material to produce beads. There are a lot of unexplored possibilities, says Kato, but the future looks encouraging.
“It can be a win-win,” says Kato. “It represents a good business opportunity that’s also good for the planet.”
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