Today’s Solutions: March 25, 2023

Last week, Laguna Beach, California — known for its surfers, waves, and rolling hills – caused a stir for its tight prohibition on the sale and use of balloons. The motion was passed by the municipal council last week, citing the risk of wildfires and the fact that balloons are a major source of marine debris. Balloons of all kinds will be prohibited from being used on public land or at city events beginning in 2024, with violators risking fines of up to $500. Residential dwellings will be exempt.

A rising trend

Maryland and Virginia prohibited deliberate balloon releases in 2021, Hawaii followed suit in 2022, and New York and Florida are presently exploring similar legislation. Experts believe that, like plastic bags and other pollutants, balloon bans will become more widespread as public awareness of the environmental problems caused by them grows.

According to Anja Brandon, associate director of US plastics policy at the nonprofit environmental group Ocean Conservancy, coastal cities are on the cutting edge of enacting even tighter restrictions on balloons, such as the one in Laguna Beach. Part of this is because coastal cities are both suffering and paying for the environmental repercussions, she says. “Many of these cities use taxpayers’ dollars to pay for beach cleanup, especially where tourism is important.”

Why are balloons such a threat?

Kara Wiggin, a Ph.D. researcher at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography who investigates microplastics in the marine environment, finds that the council’s measures make a lot of sense. Balloons provide a double threat to the environment: first, marine mammals and sea turtles might consume the latex material. Latex balloons are 32 times more likely to kill seabirds when consumed than hard plastic, making them the most lethal sort of marine trash for seabirds.

“This is because latex balloons are made from a soft, malleable material that can easily conform to a bird’s stomach cavity or digestive tract, causing obstruction, starvation, and death,” explains Lara O’Brien, a contractor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Coastal Management.

Manufacturers claim that some latex balloons are biodegradable. Still, according to O’Brien, there are no biodegradable balloons that are safe to release since they include plasticizers that inhibit the biodegradation process and can take decades or longer to break down.

Wiggin adds that everything takes longer in water, becoming part of the plastic soup that floats in the oceans. Even though a product claims to be biodegradable, it may not be marine biodegradable because many substances that biodegrade in soil do not biodegrade in the ocean.

Strings are also connected to balloons, which might be even more dangerous, as they can wrap around necks and body parts, or can even end up in bird stomachs.  “Entanglement can be deadly and devastating, especially for threatened and endangered species, such as the Guadalupe fur seal and Hawaiian monk seal, both of which suffer from dangerously high levels of entanglement in the wild,” says Adam Ratner, associate director of conservation education at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California.

Mylar balloons, constructed of nylon with a metallic covering, are also a menace: they never degrade, remaining in the oceans for years, and their glossy appearance confuses sea animals even more. They can also become entangled on electricity lines, causing power outages or fires.

According to Wiggin, there are fewer balloons on beaches than plastic bags, but they are more harmful and people are less careful with them.

It’s too soon to tell if these bans are having an effect, but the Ocean Conservancy organizes the International Coastal Cleanup every year and keeps track of what waste they uncover, so more answers could be forthcoming soon.

When it comes to what we do about balloons legally, Brandon believes that comprehensive bills may not be tailored specifically toward balloons. “One of the difficulties is that a lot of those bills look at single-use plastic packaging – and balloons are this outside monster, separate from the packaging debate,” she explains.

They have different uses, but they have the same outcome: there is no good end-of-life strategy for them. “That’s why banning them outright is such an effective policy – especially banning the release of them where they could do the most harm.”

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