Why Balloon Releases Need to Stop

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CC BY 3.0. Sally R. Murphy/seaturtle.org

All around the world, communities are starting to speak out against the senseless "mass aerial litter" created by balloons.

Residents of Rhode Island have joined in the call to ban balloon releases for environmental reasons. After picking up nearly 2,200 downed balloons along the coastline in the past several years, the Clean Ocean Access group is petitioning the city of Newport to stop allowing the practice altogether. While a floating mass of colorful balloons may look beautiful and celebratory for a few short minutes, it can be deadly for wildlife for many years to come.

Contrary to what manufacturers claim, latex balloons are not biodegradable. Balloons may break up into smaller pieces over time, but, with the addition of chemical plasticizers and artificial dyes, they never fully biodegrade. Anti-balloon group Balloons Blow has a photo gallery of deflated latex balloons that have ended up as pollution on land or in water, where they threaten wildlife by looking dangerously like food.

From the petition:

“Sea turtles mistake them for jellyfish and ingest them and die. They are made of plastic and take a long time to degrade, likely breaking into small pieces of plastic, absorbing toxins, [getting] ingested by fish, and leading to bio accumulation. Besides the balloon itself, the ribbons are also made of plastic and lead to entanglement of seabirds, and become entangled with seaweed.”

Britain's Marine Conservation Society says it found 53 percent more balloon-related litter on beaches in 2016 than a year earlier.

The Rhode Island petition comes on the heels of Atlantic City’s new ban on outdoor balloon releases. People will face fines of up to $500 for releasing a helium balloon into the air, a move that PETA has praised. Last year, Gibraltar also made international headlines for ending its famous annual release of 300,000 red and white balloons to mark independence. As Matt Hickman wrote for MNN at the time, “At the end of the day, joyous littering is still littering.”

Rob Macmillan, co-founder of 11th Hour Racing who has spent the last decade sailing off the Rhode Island coast, told ABC6 News:

“It's incredibly depressing. You'll be sailing along and you'll just see plastic balloons floating everywhere. And, you've got to imagine that the sea life that encounters them are just ingesting them and dying, or it's getting into our own food supply.”

It’s an issue we should all be aware of, and a particularly easy practice to eliminate, since balloons serve no practical function. If you’re wondering about alternative ways to celebrate, visit the Balloons Blow website for lots of creative alternatives, from flags, streamers, ribbon dancers, and kites, to drumming, floating flowers, and more.