When the parade's over, party beads find a new life

TAMPA, Fla., April 1 -- It's been months since Tampa's Gasparilla Festival first spewed strings of party beads throughout the city, but festive spirits remain high with pageants and other events as the festival continues.

That means beads, colorful strands of plastic spheres tossed from parade floats way back in January, still festoon the city.

The festival, named after Jose Gasparilla, the infamous pirate who terrorized Florida in the late 18th century, is the region's annual version of Mardi Gras. Boats storm Tampa Bay and a parade ensued on Bayshore Boulevard with papier-mache floats and music.

The festival technically continues for months, but for many local residents, Gasparilla means one thing: beads. Sweaty crowds, outfitted in eye patches and jolly roger icons, screaming and wrestling for the most coveted booty. Some young women go so far as to expose themselves to attract a parade participant to toss a string their way, said Kristine Koran, 20.

It's a lot of effort for a prize that loses its value by the time the day is through. But thanks to a few clever ideas, not all the beads wind up in a landfill. Koran, who insists she did nothing untoward in her effort to collect beads, is using her loot as cheap home decor. Her bedroom walls are covered in individual bead strands, glittering in every color from gold to purple to iridescent pearl.

Katie Bowlby, 21, said her friends think out of the box when finding use for the beads.

“Some people make wreaths," she said."I don’t have room on the walls so I just hang them on my chair.”

Roommates Mikey Hupp, 20, and Jenna Sullivan, 19, zip-tied their beads into curtains.

“In our spare time we started stringing the beads together,” said Sullivan.

“We were kind of bored,” added Hupp, who said the girls wanted to give their room a 1960s, hippy feel with the groovy curtains dangling in their room’s entryway.

The beads come from Treasure Cove Beads, based out of Clearwater, FL. The company supplies nearly 700,000 beads for the initial Gasparilla parade, Vice President Susan Everett said.

“We have been involved in festivals and special events for about 30 years,” said Everett. “The company has doubled in size every year since we started it.”

Treasure Cove’s beads come in all varieties of shapes, sizes, skulls, and cross-bones. They're made in China, Everett said, where new and recycled plastics are used.

The final steps are to paint or metallic plate the beads to give them their unique look, and then ship them to Treasure Cove.

“We have carried up to 65 different types or assortments at any given time,” said Everett.

While some beads tossed in the parade found their way into homes, many of the strands littered Tampa's streets.

Sullivan has ideas for a recycling program that would allow the beads to reincarnate every year.

“I think that they should put bins...on the street,” said Sullivan, “You can put your beads in there and they can use it for next year instead of making new ones.”

Sullivan’s idea is already in action elsewhere.

Every March, New Orleans explodes in purples, golds, and greens. Beads of every shape and size are tossed out into the crowds who amassed on Bourbon Street.

A local chapter of The Arc, an organization that helps people with developmental disabilities, runs a year-round recycling program for the beads, said Bobbi Mannino, a spokesperson for www.MardiGrasNewOrleans.com.

Parade-goers who catch bags full of beads can donate them to The Arc.

“They sort them and repackage them,” Mannino said.

Everett says she’s held onto meaningful beads given to her by certain people, but at the end of the day these beads live for one purpose.

“They are just shiny plastic beads, made for throwing," she said. "That's it."