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Mardi Gras beads in New Orleans are creating an environmental concern

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Mardi Gras beads in New Orleans are creating an environmental concern

Trash lines the gutter on Bourbon Street, in the early hours of the morning after Mardi Gras, in New Orleans, Feb. 18, 2015. It’s a beloved century-old Carnival season tradition in New Orleans — masked riders on lavish floats fling strings of colorful beads or other trinkets to parade watchers clamoring with outstretched arms.

Gerald Herbert/AP


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Gerald Herbert/AP


Trash lines the gutter on Bourbon Street, in the early hours of the morning after Mardi Gras, in New Orleans, Feb. 18, 2015. It’s a beloved century-old Carnival season tradition in New Orleans — masked riders on lavish floats fling strings of colorful beads or other trinkets to parade watchers clamoring with outstretched arms.

Gerald Herbert/AP

NEW ORLEANS — It’s a beloved century-old Carnival season tradition in New Orleans — masked riders on lavish floats fling strings of colorful beads or other trinkets to parade watchers clamoring with outstretched arms.

It’s all in good fun but it’s also a bit of a “plastics disaster,” says Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics.

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Carnival season is at its height this weekend. The city’s annual series of parades began more than a week ago and will close out on Tuesday — Mardi Gras — a final day of revelry before Lent. Thousands attend the parades and they leave a mess of trash behind.

Despite a massive daily cleanup operation that leaves the post-parade landscape remarkably clean, uncaught beads dangle from tree limbs like Spanish moss and get ground into the mud under the feet of passers-by. They also wash into storm strains, where they only complicate efforts to keep the flood-prone city’s streets dry. Tons have been pulled from the aging drainage system in recent years.

And those that aren’t removed from the storm drains eventually get washed through the system and into Lake Pontchartrain — the large Gulf of Mexico inlet north of the city. The nonbiodegradable plastics are a threat to fish and wildlife, Enck said.

“The waste is becoming a defining characteristic of this event,” said Brett Davis, a New Orleans native who grew up catching beads at Mardi Gras parades. He now heads a nonprofit that works to reduce the waste.

One way of making a dent in the demand for new plastic beads is to reuse old ones. Parade-goers who carry home shopping bags of freshly caught beads, foam footballs, rubber balls and a host of other freshly flung goodies can donate the haul to the Arc of New Orleans. The organization repackages and resells the products to raise money for the services it provides to adults and children with disabilities.

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The city of New Orleans and the tourism promotion organization New Orleans & Co. also have collection points along parade routes for cans, glass and, yes, beads.

Aside from recycling, there’s a small but growing movement to find something else for parade riders to lob.

Grounds Krewe, Davis’s nonprofit, is now marketing more than two dozen types of nonplastic, sustainable items for parade riders to pitch. Among them: headbands made of recycled T-shirts; beads made out of paper, acai seeds or recycled glass; wooden yo-yos; and packets of locally-made coffee, jambalaya mix or other food items — useful, consumable items that won’t just take up space in someone’s attic or, worse, wind up in the lake.

“I just caught 15 foam footballs at a parade,” Davis joked. “What am I going to do with another one?”

Plastic imports remain ubiquitous but efforts to mitigate their damage may be catching on.

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“These efforts will help green Mardi Gras,” said Christy Leavitt, of the group Oceana, in an email.

Enck, who visited New Orleans last year and attended Mardi Gras celebrations, hopes parade organizers will adopt the biodegradable alternatives.

“There are great ways to have fun around this wonderful festival,” she said. “But you can have fun without damaging the environment.”

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Reddit plans share sales to platform’s users as it moves ahead with IPO

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Reddit plans share sales to platform’s users as it moves ahead with IPO

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Reddit revealed more than $800mn in sales and narrowing losses as it unveiled a prospectus ahead of its long-delayed initial public offering, outlining plans to allot a portion of its shares to retail investors and users of its social network.

The first major tech group flotation of 2024 will test the strength of the US IPO market after two lacklustre years. Under the ticker RDDT, the company is poised to list on the New York Stock Exchange as soon as early March.

The number of shares sold to retail and Reddit users would be “significant”, the company said.

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“We hope going public will provide meaningful benefits to our community as well,” Steve Huffman, co-founder and chief executive, said in the prospectus. “Our users have a deep sense of ownership over the communities they create on Reddit. This sense of ownership often extends to all of Reddit.” 

Reddit was valued at $10bn in its most recent private fundraising in 2021, but some investors have since marked down their valuations by about 50 per cent.

San Francisco-based Reddit reported sales of $804mn in 2023, according to the prospectus, up 21 per cent year on year. The company, once known as a bastion for free speech, makes most of its revenue from advertising, forcing it in recent years to more closely police the shadier underbelly of the platform. Net losses shrunk from $159mn to $91mn in 2023, but it has never reported a profit.

The platform said it had 267.5mn weekly active users across more than 100,000 subreddits, or individual topic and interest-based forums, the most famous of which was the WallStreetBets trading forum. 

Reddit said it would use a “directed share programme” to allocate shares to longtime users — or “redditors” — and will also sell stock to the broader retail investment community through apps such as Robinhood and SoFi.

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The company cautioned that involving an unusually large number of retail traders in the listing could lead to an increase in stock price volatility, and risked replicating the sort of “meme stock” price action that led to a brief jump in Robinhood’s stock shortly after its listing in 2021.

“High levels of initial interest . . . may result in an unsustainable market price, in which case the market price of our class A common stock may decline over time,” the prospectus noted. 

Huffman holds restricted stock that would vest if Reddit attains a $5bn market capitalisation after the offering, according to the filing. People close to the situation said previously that it was aiming to achieve an initial valuation of at least $5bn when it goes public.

Reddit is battling the dominant Silicon Valley giants such Meta and Google for marketing dollars as the advertising market recovers from its recent slump.

Beyond advertising, Reddit is seeking to diversify its revenues, for example by charging third parties to access its data which was previously free. Separately on Thursday, it announced that it had struck a deal with Google which would “usher in new ways for Reddit content to be displayed across Google products” while allowing the search engine to use Reddit posts to train its artificial intelligence models. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the deal was worth about $60mn annually.

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Reddit is also seeking to generate revenue by formalising some of the marketplaces that have emerged on the network, such as subreddits where users pay each other for Photoshop requests or sell sneakers.

Entities affiliated with Sam Altman, chief executive of artificial intelligence group OpenAI, beneficially own more than 5 per cent of the outstanding capital stock, ahead of the debut, according to the prospectus. Altman was, at the time of the 2021 financing, a member of Reddit’s board of directors, the filing said. 

Reddit first filed a confidential version of its prospectus more than two years ago, but its listing plans were derailed as rising interest rates and falling tech valuations caused most new listing activity to freeze.

Activity has been picking up in recent months, however, as investors grow increasingly confident that rates have peaked, and stock indices notch new record highs.

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Ex-FBI source accused of lying about Bidens and having Russian contacts is returned to US custody

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Ex-FBI source accused of lying about Bidens and having Russian contacts is returned to US custody

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A former FBI informant who claims to have links to Russian intelligence and is charged with lying about a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving President Joe Biden’s family was again taken into custody Thursday in Las Vegas, two days after a judge released him, his attorneys said.

Alexander Smirnov was arrested during a meeting Thursday morning at his lawyers’ law offices in downtown Las Vegas. The arrest came after prosecutors appealed the judge’s ruling allowing 43-year-old Smirnov, who holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, to be released with a GPS monitor ahead of trial. He is charged with making a false statement and creating a false and fictitious record.

Attorneys David Chesnoff and Richard Schonfeld said in a statement that they have requested an immediate hearing on his detention and will again push for his release. They said Smirnov was taken into custody on a warrant issued in California for the same charges.

The case against Smirnov was originally filed in California, where he used to live. Several sealed entries were listed in the court docket, but no additional details about his return to custody were immediately available.

A spokesman for Justice Department special counsel David Weiss, who is prosecuting Smirnov, confirmed that Smirnov had been arrested again, but did not have additional comment. He is in the custody of U.S. Marshals in Nevada, said Gary Schofield, the chief marshal in Las Vegas.

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Smirnov was first arrested last week in Las Vegas, where he now lives, while returning from overseas.

Prosecutors say Smirnov falsely told his FBI handler that executives from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma paid President Biden and Hunter Biden $5 million each around 2015. The claim became central to the Republican impeachment inquiry of President Biden in Congress.

Smirnov has not entered a plea to the charges, but his lawyers have said their client is presumed innocent and they look forward to defending him at trial.

As part of their push to keep him in custody, prosecutors said Smirnov told investigators after his arrest last week that “officials associated with Russian intelligence were involved in passing a story” about Hunter Biden. They said Smirnov’s self-reported contact with Russian officials was recent and extensive, and said he had planned to meet with foreign intelligence contacts during an upcoming trip abroad.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Albregts on Tuesday had said he was concerned about Smirnov’s access to money prosecutors estimated at $6 million but noted that federal guidelines required him to fashion “the least restrictive conditions” ahead of trial. Smirnov was also ordered to stay in the area and surrender his passports.

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“Do not make a mockery out of me,” Albregts said to Smirnov, warning that he’d be placed back into the federal government’s custody if he violated any of his conditions. His lawyers say he had been “fully compliant” with his release conditions.

Prosecutors quickly appealed to U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright in California.

“The circumstances of the offenses charged — that Smirnov lied to his FBI handler after a 10-year relationship where the two spoke nearly every day — means that Smirnov cannot be trusted to provide truthful information to pretrial services,” prosecutors wrote in court documents. “The effects of Smirnov’s false statements and fabricated information continue to be felt to this day. Now the personal stakes for Smirnov are even higher. His freedom is on the line.”

Smirnov had been an informant for more than a decade when he made the explosive allegations about the Bidens in June 2020, after “expressing bias” about Joe Biden as a presidential candidate, prosecutors said.

But Smirnov had only routine business dealings with Burisma starting in 2017, according to court documents. No evidence has emerged that Joe Biden acted corruptly or accepted bribes in his current role or previous office as vice president.

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While his identity wasn’t publicly known before the indictment, Smirnov’s claims have played a major part in the Republican effort in Congress to investigate the president and his family, and helped spark what is now a House impeachment inquiry into Biden. Republicans pursuing investigations of the Bidens demanded the FBI release the unredacted form documenting the unverified allegations, though they acknowledged they couldn’t confirm if they were true.

Democrats called for an end to the probe after the Smirnov indictment came down last week, while Republicans distanced the inquiry from his claims and said they would continue to “follow the facts.”

Smirnov’s lawyers say he has been living in Las Vegas for two years with his longtime girlfriend and requires ongoing treatment and daily medications for “significant medical issues related to his eyes.” He lived in California for 16 years prior to moving to Nevada.

___

Whitehurst reported from Washington, D.C.

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Albanian MPs approve deal to build migrant centres for Italy

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Albanian MPs approve deal to build migrant centres for Italy

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Albania has ratified a migration deal with Italy that allows Rome to hold asylum-seekers in the non-EU country — the last big hurdle for a controversial scheme apparently inspired by the UK’s immigration agreement with Rwanda. 

The parliamentary vote on Thursday came less than a month after Albania’s constitutional court ruled that the deal, first unveiled in November, did not contravene Albanian laws despite opposition calls for more consultation and concerns over human rights.

The deal sets a new precedent for people seeking protection within the EU to be held outside the bloc while their claims are assessed. Italy’s parliament has already ratified the plan.

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The deal reached last year by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Albanian counterpart Edi Rama allows Italy to build two migrant holding centres in Albania, an EU candidate country and one of Europe’s poorest nations.

Italy aims to process 36,000 people a year through the centres, which will be able to house a total of 3,000 people.

“Albania is choosing to act like an EU member state and agreeing to share a burden that Europe should face united as a whole,” said Rama in a post on social media site X after the vote. “No country can solve such a challenge alone.”

The scheme is fundamentally different to the UK’s stalled Rwanda plan, analysts said, as the two centres will remain under Rome’s full jurisdiction and those deemed eligible for asylum will be allowed to go to Italy.

“The main goal is deterrence. They want to convince people that the Italian asylum system is not that welcoming any more,” said Luca Barana, a research fellow on migration policy at Rome’s Institute of International Affairs.

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“But I don’t think it will be that effective. Deterrence doesn’t work, especially in the long term,” he added, warning that the Albanian centres could face legal challenges from asylum seekers.

The cost of building and operating the detention centres — to be borne entirely by Italian taxpayers — is estimated at €53mn this year, rising to €600mn over the deal’s initial five-year timeframe, according to the Italian government.

“It’s a huge waste of money,” said Lia Quartapelle, an Italian lawmaker with the opposition Democratic party. “It’s just a huge electoral ad.”

Several international bodies criticised the deal, with the Council of Europe saying it “raises several human rights concerns and adds to a worrying European trend towards the externalisation of asylum responsibilities”.

The council cited several concerns over fairness of asylum procedures, identification of vulnerable people, the possibility of automatic detention without adequate judicial review, inadequate detention conditions and a lack of access to legal aid.

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Amnesty International said the agreement would “create an unlawful and harmful system” that would “increase people’s suffering”.  

Meloni won elections in 2022 promising tough measures to curb drastically the number of migrants arriving in Italy from across the Mediterranean, and her government imposed tough restrictions on charities carrying out humanitarian rescues of those at risk of drowning.

More than 155,750 irregular migrants arrived in Italy last year, a rise of 50 per cent over the previous year, and the highest level since the peak of the European migration crisis in 2016, interior ministry data shows.

The prime minister also came under fire from her coalition partner Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, who demanded tougher action to stop the inflows. 

In recent months, the pace of irregular arrivals has slowed sharply, with 4,368 people arriving so far in 2024, down from 12,903 over the same period last year.   

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But after the Tirana vote a coalition of humanitarian groups working to protect migrants at sea said Rome’s restrictions on Mediterranean Sea rescues — including the impounding of nine humanitarian rescue boats on 16 occasions, for a total of 300 days — had contributed to an increase in deaths last year.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 2,500 migrants drowned or went missing in the Central Mediterranean in 2023, up from 1,417 the previous year.

“This deliberate obstruction of the life-saving activities of NGOs takes place in an environment in which search and rescue capacity at sea is already grossly inadequate . . . and has disastrous consequences,” said a statement signed by groups including Médecins Sans Frontières.

Gazment Bardhi, an Albanian MP from the opposition rightwing Democratic party who led the unsuccessful appeal to the constitutional court, said: “We [have to be] very careful not to have a second Lampedusa in Albania,” referring to the Italian island that was overwhelmed by the arrival of thousands of migrants in a single week last year.

He added that he was “quite sure” some migrants would raise the issue at the European Court of Human Rights.

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