BATON ROUGE-Carnival season has an ugly side. During a recent cleanup project, the City of New Orleans pulled 93,000 pounds of Mardi Gras beads from storm drains on a five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue. These kitschy souvenirs have a devastating impact on Louisiana's waterways, sewage systems, and landfills, and the problem continues to go unsolved with each Mardi Gras season.
LSU Biology's Dr. Naohiro Kato thinks he may have the answer. One night, an undergraduate student in his research group did not move an algae culture from the lab's centrifuge to the freezer. When Dr. Kato got there the next day, the algae had produced a large mass of oil, which is the key ingredient in bioplastic-- a material that looks and feels like plastic but decomposes in soil.
Dr. Kato had a stroke of inspiration. He had talked with some friends at a party a few years before who wondered if anything could be done to make Mardi Gras more environmentally-friendly. Up to 25 million pounds of beads are distributed annually, and most are made of a combination of polyethylene and polystyrene. Polystyrene can take anywhere from a few hundred to a million years to break down.
Bioplastic, on the other hand, can be engineered to decompose in just a few days. After doing some research, Dr. Kato found out that there are no biodegradable Mardi Gras beads on the market. After experimenting with growing algae in a kiddie pool to get a higher yield, he quickly realized that he may have a solution to Louisiana's festive dilemma.
A string of biodegradable beads costs about 3 times as much to make as a string of regular beads, which are typically mass-produced in China. To offset the cost, Dr. Kato hopes that the bioplastic industry may bloom alongside the growing demand for algae-based nutritional supplements, which produces algal oil as a byproduct. In fact, to keep his project running, he has started his own nutraceutical company called Microalgae LLC.
Dr. Kato also has a patent pending on his creation. He hopes that soon, Lousianians may not have to choose between catching beads and going green.