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Gasparilla Beads: Saturday's Treasure, Sunday's Environmental Headache

A krewe member dressed like a pirate tosses beads
Each year, thousands of beads are tossed to the crowds that line Bayshore Boulevard for Tampa's annual parade of pirates. CREDIT: Daylina Miller / WUSF Public Media

Some have called Gasparilla "Mardi Gras without the Catholicism," and what would either of those celebrations be without an abundance of beads?

But long after the floats are packed and the krewes have gone home - the plastic trinkets are still there.

Last year, a team of volunteer divers from the Florida Aquarium pulled 200 pounds of beads from Tampa Bay.

Kinsley McEachern, a microplastic researcher and recent graduate of USF St. Petersburg, says those beads can have a lasting impact on the area's marine life.

"They just wind up either being ingested or causing harm by entangling an animal,” said McEachern. “There's a lot of different ways that they can hurt our wildlife and pollute our ecosystem."

The beads also absorb the heavy metals and pesticides from runoff and contain their own toxic chemicals that, when ingested, poison marine life and leave them unable to reproduce.

LEARN MORE about the impact of microplastics in Tampa Bay 

And those negative effects can work their way up the food chain.

“We have sea turtles, manatees, oysters, scallops and wading birds that use Tampa Bay as an important habitat,” said McEachernn. “All these animals can potentially interact with the plastic debris and plastic pollution that we throw out.”

The City of Tampa is addressing concerns about the parade's environmental impact through Mayor Jane Castor’s “Bead Free Bay” campaign (see below for a list of collection sites). 

The anti-littering initiative designated “bead free zones” in an attempt to keep the plastics that are thrown between boats out of the city’s waterways.

“We want everybody to throw beads and enjoy the parade but we want to keep those beads out of our waterways and we don't want to harm our marine life,” said Castor. “And we certainly don't want to harm one of the best attributes that we have and that's our waterways.”

McEachern says that though the city’s efforts are a step in the right direction, beads should be dropped from Gasparilla entirely.

“I think the bead free zones are great, and the monitoring by the Coast Guard is a great effort to prevent littering from boats and people on shore, but it’s really hard to regulate something like that,” said McEachern.

Littering isn't the only problem with the throwable trinkets. Once the festivities are over, the beads can't simply be recycled. 

Unbroken strands can be cleaned and packaged for reuse, but damaged strands wind up either in landfills -which McEachern notes can mean they eventually wind up back in the waterways - or in incinerators.

With all the effort spent mitigating the parade's environmental impact, McEachern argues the city should just celebrate without any beads at all. 

“It would be awesome to see the future of Gasparilla evolve to being completely bead-free and promoting the city of Tampa as a sustainable and healthy ecosystem for all the human beings and wildlife that call Tampa Bay their home.”

Bead Collection Sites: 

The Florida Aquarium (701 Channelside Dr) 

  • For every 10 pounds of beads collected the aquarium will give a $10 discount on admission 
  • Collect 30 pounds of beads for free admission 

Copeland Park Community Center (11001 N 15th St) 
Kate Jackson Community Center (821 Rome Ave) 

Loretta Ingraham Recreation Complex (1611 N Hubert Ave)

MacDonald Training Center (5420 W Cypress St) 

Port Tampa Community Center (4702 W McCoy St) 

Delaney Brown is a radio news intern for the fall of 2019.
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