LSU professor seeks to make Mardi Gras more sustainable

February 15, 2018 GMT

Beads are a staple of Mardi Gras celebrations. However, apart from some particularly rare or ornate beads, some beads are thrown away, and may end up in landfills. LSU biological sciences professor Naohiro Kato wants to change this.

Using microalgae, Kato created an efficient method to create biodegradable plastic, which he uses to make both beads and doubloons.

“This project actually started about five years ago when I was invited to a Mardi Gras party by someone who lives in New Orleans,” Kato said.

Kato said he is from Japan and moved to Baton Rouge in 2005. He said his friends here were concerned with how they could make Mardi Gras celebrations more environmentally friendly.

“They wanted to change the way we celebrate Mardi Gras, such as Mardi Gras beads being thrown away and going into the sewage system or landfills,” Kato said. “People purchase 12 million dollars of plastic from China in New Orleans every year and it automatically goes to a landfill. They wanted change.”

As a biologist, Kato’s mind immediately went to bioplastics. However, this was not a perfect solution.

“I quickly learned that it doesn’t work, even though the technology is present,” Kato said. “Biodegradable Mardi Gras beads are not economically friendly. Mardi Gras beads are very inexpensive, almost the same price as the beads themselves. Even though the technology is there, it is impossible to produce biodegradable Mardi Gras beads. They won’t make any profit.”

According to an article on Smithsonian.com, over 25 million pounds of beads are distributed each year. The article also said that the beads contain trace amounts of lead and other dangerous compounds, causing the soil along New Orleans parade routes to have the highest lead levels in the city.

Despite the challenges, Kato said he believes he can find a way to profitably produce biodegradable beads. The first discovery to help Kato on his journey took place when an undergraduate student forgot to return an algae sample to the freezer after running it through the centrifuge. In the morning, the algae had accumulated a large amount of oil, a main ingredient in the plastic.

Additionally, other companies use the same microalgae to produce nutraceutical compounds that are highly profitable, some selling for several thousand dollars per pound. Because bioplastics can be produced from the by-products of creating these more expensive compounds, Kato said he hopes he can use profits from those to offset the cost of plastic production.

Kato’s company, Microalgae LLC, is currently seeking investors to begin production, he said. Kato plans for the company to produce profitable nutraceutical compounds, as well as the less profitable plastics. Kato said he believes that combining the two products into one company is the only way biodegradable Mardi Gras beads will succeed.

“Louisiana is one of the places to grow microalgae, used to produce nutraceutical compounds,” Kato said. “Why don’t we just produce Mardi Gras beads, as well?”