The life of gasparilla’s beads from china to treasure to trash gas constant for air

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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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.