Balloons are synonymous with celebrations, birthdays, and giddy joy. But now some environmentalists are launching an all-out war on them.
From university campuses to entire island communities, balloon bans are becoming a thing. The issue gained national prominence this week as one southern university launched back into classes—without its historic tradition of releasing balloons. It’s possible balloon bans could sweep the nation the same way plastic straw bans have. But are they necessary?
Well, balloons are a major environmental issue. When they fly off into the sky never to be seen again, they end up somewhere—usually, in our oceans. During an international ocean cleanup effort in 2016, participants collected enough balloon waste to carry a 2,200-pound walrus. More than 270 experts on marine animals ranked balloons among the top three threats to seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals, according to a 2015 paper in Marine Policy.
Why? Because animals eat this plastic gunk, mistaking it for food. Balloon waste can fill up animals’ bellies, causing them to starve. And those ribbons attached to balloons? Birds can get strangled in them and die.
“We have seen that birds will feed their young plastic pieces,” said Virginia Witmer, the outreach coordinator for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Coastal Zone Management Program, to Earther. “That fills up the babies, and they’re not getting the proper nutrition.”
Witmer was part of a team that took five years to properly study the impacts balloon litter has had on Virginia beaches. The team’s latest report, released this month, chronicles the years 2013 to 2017. Throughout their four years of hunting for it, the researchers note they found more than 11,000 pieces of balloon and balloon-related litter. This trash made up most of the marine debris in the Virginia beaches the team surveyed.
Still, Witmer isn’t sure that an all-out ban on all balloons is necessary. Her team is more interested in trying to change the way society thinks about and uses these items.
“We don’t want to tell people to not celebrate with balloons,” Witmer told Earther. “Celebrate with balloons, but at the end, pop them and put them in the trash. We’re trying to change social norms.”
Where bans may make more sense, she said, is with mass releases. Think of weddings and the celebratory send-off of balloons. Or that one time in 1986 Cleveland thought it’d be a good idea to release more than a million balloons. At Clemson University in South Carolina, the football team has always entered the field with a celebratory release of thousands of orange balloons. It’s been that way for the last 30 years, but that practice ends this year.
On Block Island off Rhode Island’s southern shore, balloons are banned outright. They can’t be used, and they can’t be sold. As an island community, residents have an intimate relationship with the water, and many have seen firsthand where balloons end up.
“Here, a lot of us walk on our beaches every day, and we go out on our boats,” said Ken Lacoste, the first warden of the New Shoreham Town Council, to Earther. “It’s crazy how many [balloons] are out there.”
But what about the kids and the parties?! For Lacoste, the threat to the environment “outweighs any effect for children not seeing any balloons fly up to the sky.” He wants to see the mindset change, for kids to grow up without an expectation of balloons on their birthdays. After all, there are other ways to spruce up a party or show a person love on a birthday—from paper mache to flowers to fruit baskets—that don’t take the same environmental toll.
Block Island isn’t the first town to ban balloons. In Nantucket, Massachusetts, the plastic orbs were outlawed in 2015. So the trend isn’t starting now; it’s growing.
A piece of my childhood self is cringing, but these bans might be a necessary evil. After all, balloons aren’t a required part of people’s daily living the way plastic straws are for some disabled people. (Unless, I guess, if you’re a clown in need of work.)
At the very least, these bans will shift the way people interact with balloons, reminding us that using them irresponsibly carries consequences.
I’m (reluctantly) joining this war now, too. Where’s the next battle?