The life of Gasparilla’s beads: from China to treasure to trash

Where do they come from? Where do they go?
A member of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla hands out beads during the Gasparilla Pirate Festival parade along Bayshore Boulevard. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times (2016)]
A member of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla hands out beads during the Gasparilla Pirate Festival parade along Bayshore Boulevard. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times (2016)]
Published Jan. 26, 2018|Updated Jan. 21, 2020

Nothing else goes from treasure — bodies jostling, arms toward heaven, screaming-til-you’re-hoarse, give them to me now so I can pile them on my neck, treasure — to garbage, accumulated in the street, puked on, cluttering-the-back-of-the-closet-until-they-go-in-the-trash-for spring cleaning garbage, as fast as Gasparilla parade beads.

Some of the various krewes, there are around 70, spend $10,000 to $20,000 on them. It can be hundreds of dollars per pirate, coming from the krewe members’ own pockets.

The street value of all the beads in the main parade is likely around $1 million, but that single strand you’re screaming and elbowing for originally cost about 7 to 10 cents.

An estimated 5.4 million individual strands of beads will change hands at Gasparilla or about 225,000 pounds of plastic. That’s heavier than a space shuttle. It’s a fleet of 62 Ford Tauruses plus three elephants. That’s enough beads to stretch across the continent, from Tampa to San Francisco.

Not a lot of thought is given to where beads come from or where they go, but their journey traces a line around the globe, threaded through global commodities and international commerce, small Tampa businesses and foreign factories fighting for their piece of a shrinking, bead-money pie. It ends in a wildly fun party followed by an appalling amount of waste.

• • •

In early summer, factory workers in China load loud, hot machines with polystyrene pellets reminiscent of sugar granules. They melt into big glops of molten plastic that comes out of molds in dull bead strands hundreds of feet long.

The pellets are made from a floral-smelling liquid called styrene, made from chemicals refined from petroleum, probably pumped from wells in China or Siberia. That means the price of a barrel of crude oil affects the price of beads, and in a roundabout way, the beads are made from the remains of millions-year-old plants and animals extracted from the earth.

The pellets also are made from plastic items thrown away all over the world, collected and sold to Chinese recyclers. Much is e-waste, like computer keyboards and old, ground-up televisions that were melted down and can lead to nasty phthalates and flame retardants in the final product. This means the beads are literally made of garbage.

To comply with safety regulations on children's products, beads used in the Gasparilla Children's Parade must be made of Grade-A virgin plastic, and not that ground-up garbage. Beads thrown for the adult parade don't have to meet as strict safety requirements, which, among other things, is an argument for leaving the kids at home.

The factory workers cut those long strands into 33-inch lengths. They place a pin into a machine that uses electricity to make it glow red-hot before melting the necklace closed, then repeat that hundreds of times as fast as possible.

They pay their employer to live at the factory, and also for three daily meals they eat there. With lots of overtime in their six-day workweek, they make about the equivalent of $500 a month.

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As Gasparilla is taking place, the 80 or so workers at the Tai Kuen bead factory in Huizho, and elsewhere around China, are heading back to their rural family homes for a yearly vacation — Chinese New Year.

The old Tai Kuen factory in Fuzhou and the owner's harsh treatment of workers, who were penalized for even talking, was featured in the 2005 documentary Mardi Gras: Made In China. That factory is gone and that owner has retired, but his son operates a new bead factory under the same name. It's just one small factory out of several that produced Gasparilla beads.

Tai Kuen's owner keeps a photo of the Jose Gasparilla pirate ship on the phone he uses to message potential clients in Tampa. He hopes to sail on it someday. The competing bead factories are mostly run by his relatives, he says, and all they do is fight over customers.

• • •

Most of the beads at Gasparilla, even those from Tampa vendors, come on trains and trucks through the big, Mardi Gras-focused importers in Louisiana or Alabama, but this year, for the first time ever, a container of Gasparilla beads was imported directly into Port Tampa Bay.

A group of pirates from Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla were on hand at Port Tampa Bay when the first ever container of Gasparilla beads was shipped into the port directly from China.
A group of pirates from Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla were on hand at Port Tampa Bay when the first ever container of Gasparilla beads was shipped into the port directly from China. [ COURTESY OF PORT TAMPA BAY | Courtesy of Port Tampa Bay ]

Those beads left the Port of Yantian China on a cargo ship flying a Marshall Islands flag, switched ships in Busan, Korea, before crossing the Pacific and the Panama Canal under a Liberian flag, then caught a ride on the Cape Martin from Kingston, Jamaica, flying a Cyprus flag.

They arrived July 15 at sunny Port Tampa Bay where a special exemption allowed businessmen dressed as pirates to crack the U.S. Customs seal that looked like a big zip tie from container 2779115, owned by Israel's Zim container line. They yelled argh and posed for photos "looting" the boxes stamped "Made in China."

The 7,600 pounds of beads were trucked to Buccaneer Beads, on a drab, industrial corner in East Tampa, across from a cemetery, and were celebrated by owners Jen Amato and her mother Lenore as a milestone in their 12-year-old business: they'd cut out the middle man and gone direct to China, at least for one shipment.

• • •

Lots of people want a piece of the bead business.

The big suppliers in Louisiana lament how former customers and krewes try going direct to China, and the factories in China complain about the rocketing price of plastic.

In Tampa the competition includes South Tampa Trading Co., owned by a member of a krewe, and the Rough Riders, who bring in a shipment to re-sell and raise money, and Stepp's Towing, which stores many of the Gasparilla floats and began offering cases of beads on-site, and those krewes who buy online, and research and haggle to the penny. Suppliers protect the names of their bead connections in China fiercely, so that someone doesn't muscle in on their deal.

Joseph Stokes, former owner of South Tampa's Bead Barn, once the area's biggest supplier of Gasparilla beads, recalls the business as cutthroat, with customers that had no loyalty but to the lowest price. New competition sprang up overnight. He'd see his custom bead designs on other shops' websites and send cease-and-desist letters, but eventually shut the whole thing down when he couldn't earn more than a few dollars per case.

Today a case containing around 720 strands is sold to the krewes for about $45 to $65. Buccaneer Beads, the largest local supplier, might sell 5,000 cases in a season.

LIVING AT GASPARILLA GROUND ZERO: Bayshore residents share their stories

On the Thursday before the parade, the beads are streaming out to the tow lots, and float storage facilities in krewe members' pickup trucks and car trunks for "bead drops" happening across Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Krewe members going by names like Rumdog and SkullyBonez and Billy Blacktoes, who spent their day as educational consultants, dentists and realtors spend that night loading up every nook of their floats with thousands of pounds of beads. They also load up ice to keep the beer and mixed drinks cold, and crack a few of those beers right then. It's Gasparilla, after all.

The members of Ye Mystic Krewe arriving at the staging area the morning of the parade, after the Jose Gasparilla ship has sailed, find massive stacks of bead cases arranged in alphabetical order with their names on them. There's coordinated chaos as they begin loading their extra-reinforced bead bags, and shower-hook bead belts.

A single pirate might throw more than 2,000 strands as the parade winds 3.8 miles along Bayshore Boulevard into downtown.

• • •

Stray beads hang from tree branches after the Gasparilla parade.
Stray beads hang from tree branches after the Gasparilla parade. [ Times (2016) ]

When the cannon smoke and the people clear and the vendors stop selling Bud Light, the beads are in the trees, birdbaths and storm drains. They're at the bottom of Hillsborough Bay, where volunteer divers will later pull up a fraction of them. They're in the street, mixed in with beer bottles and lost shoes and broken furniture, and will get caught in the brushes of street sweepers.

The Solid Waste Department calls the post-Gasparilla cleanup its Super Bowl. Hundreds of city workers and volunteers take part in the operation that costs the city about $35,000 in overtime pay, and collects 24 tons of garbage.

About 3 or 4 tons will be beads, mostly broken strands pulled apart as too many hands grabbed for them. Intact beads generally leave on people's necks.

A few will be dropped off as recycling, in exchange for Krispy Kreme doughnuts, or at city community centers, then tediously untangled, sorted and repackaged by clients of MacDonald Training Center, which serves people with developmental disabilities. Last year they sold $1,000 in recycled beads back to a krewe, and this year, with the city's help, they hope to increase that.

Most eventually end up in the garbage, and like all trash collected by the city of Tampa, take a truck ride to the McKay Bay Refuse to Energy plant on the city's southeast waterfront, where they're thrown in a massive garbage pit, then dropped via a giant claw into a furnace that heats them beyond 350 degrees.

A window looks in on the furnace where garbage is burned at the the McKay Bay Refuse-To-Energy plant in Tampa.
A window looks in on the furnace where garbage is burned at the the McKay Bay Refuse-To-Energy plant in Tampa. [ Times (2013) ]

That heat makes steam that runs turbines to create electricity. The beads, and everything else burned over a year, power 12,000 to 15,000 Tampa homes and release about as much carbon into the atmosphere as a coal power plant.

What's left are the ash, smoldering stumps of everything that won't totally burn, and charred bits of every other type of household waste you can think of, including a little bit of those beads.

That nastiness is trucked an hour east on Interstate 4 to Cedar Trails landfill near the Bartow airport and tucked underground. Grass grows on top, birds swarm overhead, and 8,800 miles away, factories wait for new bead orders to come in.

Contact Christopher Spata at Follow @SpataTimes.

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