Parades, beignets, and a whole lot of beads — this is Mardi Gras. The French-Catholic holiday has served as the pinnacle of debauchery for centuries, a final salute to all things crass and gluttonous before the fasting season of Lent. Yet don’t be fooled by the thumping jazz music and the brightly costumed revelers: Mardi Gras is nothing like it seems.

That’s because after the fun ends and the streets are cleared, the French Quarter transforms from party central to a literal toxic wasteland. As if the hangover wasn’t bad enough, the aftermath of this seemingly care-free holiday is enough to rain on anyone’s Mardi Gras parade. Luckily, some of the brightest minds are trying to do something about it.

Fortunately, the parties and colorful floats aren’t just limited to Fat Tuesday. For most of Louisiana, the Mardi Gras season begins on January 6 — also known as Epiphany — and rocks all the way through to Ash Wednesday.

From small towns to big cities, the Carnival celebration rages all day, every day, with some locales even featuring multiple parades in a single afternoon. But as the calendar inches closer to the end of February, that’s when the real fun begins.

During the final five days of Mardi Gras, the population of New Orleans more than doubles as the French Quarter becomes the epicenter of this pre-Lent rager. Thousands of revelers cram the sidewalks of Bourbon Street in anticipation of the coming festivities — and, boy, do they come.

Extravagant floats. Masked performers. Booze flowing like water. The streets are alive with the care-free, collective heartbeat of celebration, though there’s one thing that’d make any reveler drop their half-sipped Hurricane and race into the crowd…

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Throws! From Moon Pies to coconuts to everyone’s favorite multicolored beads, no Mardi Gras celebration is complete without souvenirs being tossed into the streets. But while catching a few strands of plastic has become a centerpiece of this holiday, things used to be much different on Bourbon Street.

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Glass beads were once flung from parade floats, though the high cost of producing these items eventually led to the introduction of cheaper, foreign-made throws. In fact, 45 million pounds of plastic makes it way to New Orleans each Mardi Gras — and most of it never leaves.

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While some party goers cherish these throws as keepsakes, the vast majority of those green and purple plastic necklaces are simply left in the streets. Coupled with the enormous amount of traditional litter left behind, the French Quarter resembles a war zone after the final parties have wound down.

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In January 2018, city officials reported pulling 93,000 pounds of beads from just five blocks of storm drains, not to mention those casually strewn outside Bourbon Street’s many restaurants and bars. When all was said and done, more than 7 million pounds of debris were recovered.

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This number is staggering, though if you were to walk the French Quarter the morning of Ash Wednesday, you’d find streets so clean you could eat off them. Yet how could millions of pounds of beer bottles, souvenir flasks, and plastic necklaces seemingly disappear overnight?

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Well, while revelers are busy crowding the streets, hundreds of bulldozers and other collection vehicles are being gassed and warmed up for the night ahead. And as soon as the last party goer stumbles to bed — or into a nearby bush — for the night, it’s go time.

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The machines swoop into the streets like birds of prey, scraping and scooping every commemorative cup and krewe doubloon in sight. But even after the enormous piles of debris are no more, there’s still the matter of all the odds and ends scattered about.

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That’s where the next round of volunteers come in. With rakes, brooms, brushes, and trash cans aplenty, these everyday New Orleans residents turn out by the hundreds, working straight through the night to make their home spick and span once more.

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By the time the sun hits the sky, it’s almost as if Mardi Gras never happened. But even with the sidewalks now free of litter and debris, a potentially fatal danger still lingers in the cracks and crevices of Bourbon Street.

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Most of the cheap plastics used in Mardi Gras throws contain trace amounts of contaminants, including toxic substances like lead. As beads and other souvenirs are discarded, trampled, and trodden on, the chemicals within gradually begin to seep into the soil of the French Quarter.

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“That’s old soil that has had years and years of exposure to lead,” explained Tulane University pharmacology professor Howard Mielke. “Kids pick beads up off the ground and don’t know [the beads] have been contaminated by the parade route itself.”

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In addition to poisoning party goers, these substances also threaten to leech into the groundwater beneath the city. Fortunately, there are a handful of individuals and organizations looking to nip this growing issue in the bud.

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One prevalent initiative is the installation of “gutter buddies,” special water-permeable sleeves filled with pebbles that fit snuggly over drain openings. With these sleeves in place, beads and other litter are kept from entering New Orleans’ sewer systems and contaminating the water supply.

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Another proposal comes from LSU associate professor of biological sciences Naohiro Kato, who has been developing biodegradable beads, using a special strain of algae, that would totally eliminate the need for plastic. This, however, may come with its own set of drawbacks.

Louisiana State University

When surveying Mardi Gras revelers on the appeal of his plan, Kato found that many actually wanted to keep the biodegradable beads because of how unique they were, effectively eliminating their intended purpose. So, is there a truly a middle ground between souvenirs and sustainability?

ArcGNO, a local organization that creates jobs for children with intellectual disabilities, seems to offer at least some affirmation. Through their Mardi Gras recycling program, the organization collects used beads, sanitizes them, and actually redistributes them for float riders to toss back into crowds.

ArcGNO

Yet despite the effectiveness of these measures within New Orleans, plastics like Mardi Gras beads continue to find their way into our oceans in alarming quantities. Gutter buddies unfortunately won’t help us here, though one young man has devised a brilliant plan to keep our ocean waters clean.

At just 18 years old, Fionn Ferreira was an aspiring scientist from West Cork, a region in southern Ireland. While there, he became all too familiar with a certain substance that was threatening his home.

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See, the ocean was a big part of Fionn’s life, but you don’t have to live on the coast to understand how truly enormous the ocean is. Covering a staggering 139,434,000 square miles, the waters of our ocean account for more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface.

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With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that 80 percent of all life on our planet is found in our oceans. Given that we’ve only explored about 10 percent of these waters, there’s no telling how many creatures actually call the ocean home.

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But despite the seemingly unfathomable amount of aquatic life here — recent estimates place the number at upwards of three trillion organisms — each and every creature that swims in our oceans currently faces an enormous threat. This danger was the substance that threatened Fionn’s home.

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Large quantities of microplastics, which are fragments of plastic less than five millimeters in length, are turning up in environments all over the world. These bits of pollution are the product of larger plastics degrading in the ocean, though they also originate from waste water treatment centers that are unable to filter them out.

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Unlike standard plastic pollution, microplastics are small enough to be absorbed into the environment, mixing with sand, rock, and even the water itself. These particles are then consumed by aquatic life, becoming part of the creature and poisoning them as a result.

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In many cases, these fragments also make their way back to us in the fish we consume. It’s estimated that Americans consume up to 52,000 microplastic particles each year, though as of now, their effects on us remain unknown.

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One fear, however, is that some of these microplastics may contain toxic chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). These substances have been linked to cancer and reproductive issues in humans, giving us yet another reason to keep our oceans clean.

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To Fionn’s dismay, these microplastics aren’t just found in places where humans reside: they’re beginning to turn up in the farthest reaches of the globe. Just recently, in fact, samples taken from Arctic glaciers revealed that microplastic particles are present there, too!

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Removing these fragments from our oceans has become a top priority for scientists, though the process isn’t so clear cut. Because the average bit of microplastic is about the size of a sesame seed, even the world’s brightest minds have struggled to find a way to get the job done. Until Fionn noticed something.

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But while kayaking one day, Fionn came across several microplastic fragments acting in a peculiar way. After a recent tanker spill had washed oil onto the rocks of a nearby island, Fionn found that plastic stuck to the oil almost like metal to a magnet.

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Because both plastic and oil are non-polar, they’re more inclined to stick to one another in nature. A lightbulb went off in Fionn’s head, and after returning home from his day at sea, he hopped online and Googled the name “Steve Papell.”

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A NASA engineer in the 1960s, Papell was tasked with finding a way to make rocket fuel magnetic so it could survive zero gravity during the Apollo space missions. He did just that in 1963 by producing ferrofluid, a liquid that becomes strongly magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field.

Today, ferrofluid can most commonly be found in speakers and other electronics, where it’s used to help control vibration and seal out debris. But could the key to saving our oceans really be found in the iPhones and tablets we use every day?

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Rather than smash open a few laptops, Fionn opted to create his own “ferrofluid” using magnetite powder and vegetable oil. Not only would this be a cheaper alternative to the real thing, but it would also pose no risk of releasing harmful substances into the environment.

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Fionn was so confident in his experiment’s effectiveness that, in 2019, he resolved to enter it in the annual Google Science Fair in Mountain View, California. Before a panel of top judges, Fionn wagered that he could remove at least 85 percent of microplastics from a polluted water sample.

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He began by injecting his “ferrofluid” into the water, which immediately turned the sample completely black. However, after placing a magnet next to the solution the sample cleared, revealing a nearly crystal-clear glass of water.

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In the end, Fionn actually exceeded his own expectations: he was able to remove 88 percent of the microplastic particles from the water sample. For his incredible efforts, the 18-year-old was awarded first prize at the fair and received $50,000 to continue his research.

Fionn Ferreira

Shortly after his amazing win, Fionn began studying at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, one of the world’s most prestigious research universities. Here, the budding scientist hopes to perfect his experiment so that it may one day help save our world.

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But according to Fionn, it’s going to take more than just a little vegetable oil and magnetite to fix the damage we’ve done: “I’m not saying that my project is the solution… The solution is that we stop using plastic altogether.”

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Reducing the world’s plastic usage to zero would certainly help to quell the growing microplastic threat, and many countries have already come out in support of this proposal. However, when the United Nations Environment Assembly met in 2019, their primary concern involved a different problem entirely.

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Among the smorgasbord of environmental issues, deforestation posed a particularly large threat to the international community. The Earth was losing over 18 million acres of greenery each year.

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Skeptics will downplay the effects of this trend. Wood is a major resource; how could we just stop harvesting it? How much harm could a few extra logs do to the planet? Well, even in an urbanized society, forests remain one of our most valuable assets.

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Of course, these wooded areas serve as the habitat for countless plant and animal species. Without a stable home, these creatures could be in danger of going extinct. But deforestation is also a problem for humans.

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It’s no secret that man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are permanently raising temperatures all over Earth. It’s unclear if we can turn back this tide, but without robust forests, we do not stand a chance.

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Areas of dense vegetation serve as a sort of sponge for carbon dioxide, plus they also help keep moisture inside the soil. But with their influence shrinking, climate change is brewing strange weather patterns that are endangering people everywhere.

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NASA has monitored these effects using satellite technology. Years of data from MODIS — Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer — have shown unexpected shifts in greenery over recent periods.

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For most of the 21st century, the drop in trees has allowed temperatures to rise and water to escape, thus transforming lush agricultural areas into virtual deserts. This process has forced entire communities to leave their homes.

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Particularly in China, which contains a small percentage of the world’s forests compared to its massive size, desertification became an incredible danger. If the dust storms in center-city Beijing were any indication, the Chinese were quickly losing their country.

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Zhang Jianlong, Director of China’s Forestry Administration, understood the dire situation required an immediate response. Pulling a few strings with friends he had in other parts of the government, he set a bold plan into action.

The rest of the world, however, wasn’t aware of the Forestry solution at the time. They only noticed it in 2019, when NASA’s satellites picked up on a startling find on Earth’s surface below.

Thanks to the work of concerned environmentalists everywhere, greening was on the rise. All of a sudden, however, about one 25% of that growth appeared to be coming out of China. Only a few years prior, it looked like it was on the verge of becoming a sandbox.

Clearly, this was no happy accident. With the trees sprouting in such neatly organized rows in many of the most vulnerable regions of China, only a human operation could be responsible. But how did this all happen so quickly?

State Forestry Administration

It turns out that Zhang convinced the government to lend him the assistance of 60,000 soldiers. Instead of carrying rifles, however, these troops trudged out to the environmental battlefield with shovels and gardening tools.

When the first spade broke through the dirt, the Three-North Shelter Forest Program was underway. The troops got to work planting thousands of trees to form an artificial forest. Ultimately, the plan was to build a “Great Green Wall.”

Naturally, the strategy isn’t a guaranteed success. Ecologist Jiang Gaoming pointed out that the government has planted much of the greenery in spaces not capable of sustaining plant life. Many of the trees will die out before too long.

For the short term, at least, China’s forests have boomed. The renewed greenery elongated the growing season and lessened the severity of dust storms. Best of all, the program inspired similar efforts worldwide.

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India suffered from many of the same industrial and ecological problems as China, so they too turned their attention to forestry. Summoning a huge number of volunteers, the country managed to plant a record 66 million saplings in just half a day!

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India also upgraded its irrigation systems nationwide, bringing water to previously dried-out areas. While this process does siphon moisture away from other areas, it’s been effective at fighting back against desertification.

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Given the current state of our planet, a ton of work is necessary to keep our world beautiful and liveable. But whether you’re a soldier or a civilian, anyone can make a difference.

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For instance, Sebastião Salgado, a Brazilian photojournalist, made a huge impact, after spending years abroad highlighting injustices across the globe. When he saw the effects of deforestation, he and his wife cooked up an unbelievable scheme to help out.

See, the Earth mattered a lot to him. He took photos that told stories about war, famine, poverty, disease, and violence. But fans of his work found relief in Salgado’s nature photos, which portrayed the power of our planet.

His wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, wrote and edited the context to his photography books and produced a documentary about her husband’s work called The Salt Of The Earth. Together, they saw all there was to see — or so they’d thought.

Back in 1994, the couple spent months documenting the Rwandan genocide. Understandably, the horror left them feeling broken, and when the war was over, all they wanted was to rest up in their hometown in Brazil.

After having been on the road for years on end, seeing Minas Gerais, Brazil, felt like huge relief at first. That was until the Salgados began to notice the change in the landscape around them; their home hardly looked familiar anymore.

The trees outside of their land had vanished, and all that remained were empty stretches of dirt. While this region is not part of the Amazon rainforest, its flora is supposed to be quite similar. Clearly, that was no longer the case.

Deforestation has plagued South America for decades now, as the demand for wood just keeps on rising. In fact, Brazil specifically has seen the highest deforestation rates of natural forests in the continent, and most of it is done illegally.

Between 2000 and 2008, both legal and illegal deforestation turned Brazil into a shell of its former self, with satellite imaging picking up less green year after year. Sebastião and his wife recognized this — and it broke their hearts.

“The land was as sick as I was – everything was destroyed,” Sebastião told The Guardian in 2015. “Only about 0.5% of the land was covered in trees.” Without drastic intervention, he knew, that number would likely soon be 0.

“Suddenly, my wife had a fabulous idea to replant this forest,” Sebastião recalled. It was a tall order, one the couple wasn’t even sure was possible. Could they even put a dent in deforestation’s impact? They knew they had to try.

So they gathered all the manpower they could get and went to work. The plan was to gather the remaining seeds from the local region and carefully plant them, one by one, to get natural fauna to return to the area as well.

Every day for years on end, the Salgados and a few volunteers woke up, put on their gear, and worked for hours to undo the damage and rebuild the forest that once adorned this province.

Trees and plants needing a little extra TLC were grown in several greenhouses the Salgados built. There, Lelia looked after them with the help of a local gardening expert. The more flora that survived and grew, the more land they could recover.

And as time went by, seeds grew roots, roots grew branches, and branches grew leaves. It was difficult for the hard workers to not see their progress overnight, but after several months, their blood, sweat, and tears began to pay off.

As the trees grew, Sebastião felt peace. “All the insects and birds and fish returned and, thanks to this increase of the trees,” he said, “I, too, was reborn – this was the most important moment.”

“We need to listen to the words of the people on the land,” Sebastião explained. “Nature is the Earth and it is other beings and if we don’t have some kind of spiritual return to our planet, I fear that we will be compromised.”

Over two decades, the 1,700-acre forest was almost completely restored by planting nearly 300 different types of trees and plants, which caused a whopping 172 of bird species to return to the area.

Along with the birds, 33 endangered mammal species and 15 endangered reptile species were welcomed back into their native home. This meant the world for animals like the orangutan, who suffered greatly from deforestation.

The Salgados’ work was unbelievable, and they proved small groups can make a huge difference. Planting more trees, plants, and flowers is a fantastic place to start, even if you don’t have many resources!