TAMPA — Elizabeth Overstreet was excited that her city of Tampa cared enough about the environmental impact of all those Gasparilla beads that it offered a program to turn in the beads to be polished up and reused.
But when she showed up at Copeland Park in Temple Terrace to drop hers off on Sunday, she found a bin that was filled to the brim with “rather nasty garbage,” including diapers.
“It did not look like anybody else had dropped any beads in the bin. I felt like I had completely wasted my time in trying to do the right thing,” Overstreet said.
The Gasparilla Parade of Pirates on Saturday was once again the city’s signature event, staging a mock invasion by pirates followed by a Mardi Gras-style parade of floats and krewes who toss beads and trinkets to a crowd of some 300,000 people.
The city and environmentalists have long been concerned about the aftermath, especially those beads making their way to the bottom of Tampa Bay. Like all other plastics, they break down into microplastics and other toxins. They never decompose and can remain in the ecosystem for hundreds of years, according to marine scientists.
In 2019, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor launched the Bead-Free Bay initiative to urge Gasparilla revelers to obey litter laws and quit tossing the necklaces into the water — especially from boats. In 2018, the city launched what it calls a bead “reuse” program, being careful not to call it recycling since they are merely being cleaned, sanitized and resold.
Marla Spence-Howell, communications coordinator for the city’s Solid Waste Department, said the city has placed bead bins at several sites around town.
Beads that are deposited into the bins are taken to the MacDonald Training Center in Tampa, which provides vocational training for people with disabilities. There, they sort, sanitize and sell the repurposed beads. Forthis year’s Gasparilla, they once again sold out of the $40 cases that each contained 575 necklaces of classic round beads.
The city estimates 300,000 necklaces have been salvaged from the city’s parades since the program started in 2018. They collect about 1,000 pounds of beads per year, but that is still only about 2% of the beads tossed, said Edgar CastroTello, recycling specialist with Tampa’s Solid Waste Department.
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said the city has been looking at ways to improve the program.
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On Monday, a cardboard box that said “Gasparilla” on the side sat near the sidewalk in Kate Jackson Park, full of garbage. That is as it should be, Spence-Howell said, since the cardboard boxes are temporary garbage cans placed there for Gasparilla. They are not for beads.
Near the door of the park’s recreation center was a large blue plastic garbage bin, similar to the ones used for residential garbage or recycling. It had a big sticker on it that said “Beads Only,” and there were some bags of Gasparilla beads inside — and no garbage. The bead bin at the MacDonald Training Center also only had piles of beads in it on Monday.
But when Overstreet drove to Temple Terrace to drop off her collection of Gasparilla beads at Copeland Park, the large blue plastic bin that clearly said “Beads Only” was filled with garbage, she said.
CastroTello said it’s not unusual to find garbage deposited in the containers, though it is rarely that bad, he said.
“People see any dispenser and they drop things off. It’s a common problem,” CastroTello said.
Overstreet, a Tampa resident who is a consultant for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, thinks the bins should be more plentiful, set up in places where people aren’t likely to just dump their garbage and have slots instead of lids to prevent people from putting anything other than beads in them.
“I really had to go many miles out of my way, and I was happy to do it since I love the idea of recycling them and that they won’t need to buy and produce as many,” Overstreet said. “Ideally for me it would be great if they partnered with Publix for a way to let us just drop off the beads without it being confused with garbage.”
CastroTello said they are looking to expand the number of city park sites that have bead bins, since the bins will be out there until May. That’s because, in addition to Gasparilla, people get beads at the Pride parade, the Knight parade and the St. Patrick’s Day parade. He said the city also is looking to expand its partnerships with local businesses and organizations like Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful that do their own bead collecting.
The Florida Aquarium is sweetening the deal with 50% off admission for every 5-gallon bucket of recycled beads delivered to the aquarium. That promotion is available through Feb. 11.
The city would prefer people empty their bags of beads into the bins so the beads are loose, but big bags of beads are common and just fine. Residents can drop off their beads during normal business hours at:
- Kate Jackson Community Center, 821 S. Rome Ave.
- Loretta Ingraham Recreation Complex, 1611 N. Hubert Ave.
- Copeland Park Center, 11001 N. 15th St.
- MacDonald Training Center, 5420 W. Cypress St.
Times staff writers Langston Taylor and Chris Urso contributed to this report.