Balloons can pose a real threat, and not just balloons that may have been deployed by China to spy on the United States. Even the child-sized pink plastic “Happy Birthday” balloon can be dangerous if left in the wrong hands. Or rather left by the wrong hands.
That’s because many of these innocent party favors are filled with helium for loft and then released, intentionally or accidentally, to gracefully float away. They do – until they deflate and return to Earth, come to rest in a bush or tree, or crash into the ocean, where they may cross paths with a hapless sea creature.
Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence. There have been several recent cases of sea turtles, seals and sea lions off the coast of California becoming entangled in or suffocated by balloon strings, or in physical distress after swallowing balloons. One of the main findings of a Oceana Report 2020 on ocean plastic, balloons were one of the most common types of plastic entangled or consumed by marine life, along with bags, recreational fishing lines, sails and food packaging.
The threat to marine life is one of the main reasons why a handful of coastal Southern California cities have imposed restrictions on the use of balloons, ranging from banning the sale or release of balloons that are lighter than air (which generally means balloons are filled with helium) to a ban on the sale, distribution or public use of all balloons passed through Laguna Beach on Tuesday.
If this trend sounds familiar, it’s because a few years ago, single-use plastic straws were the target of local bans. In the end, there were so many different rules about the distribution of disposable plastic straws that a state law, which began in 2019, made sense. Balloons can meet the same fate.
It shouldn’t have been. Balloons, like plastic straws, are not necessarily bad. The problem is how people use them and mindlessly throw them away. Releasing hundreds of colorful, helium-filled balloons into the sky can be a visually stunning way to mark a noteworthy occasion, but those bits of plastic in the air will land somewhere and then plague the landscape and pose a hazard for the local wildlife. some states, like Hawaii, prohibit the intentional mass release of all helium-filled balloons (California restricts the release of mylar balloons only as part of a public or private event or promotion) or are considering prohibition. But accidental releases — the child releasing the party balloon, a bouquet of festive balloons coming loose in the wind — are also a problem, simply because of the number of balloons released into the environment and the buildup of plastic over time.
California will phase out of mylar balloons by 2031, because their metal nylon foil casings tend to cause blackouts and start wildfires when they drift into power lines. That’s good, but now California lawmakers should consider imposing restrictions on the use and release of latex balloons. The balloon industry markets latex rubber balloons as biodegradable, but studies have shown that they are biodegradable don’t break down in the ocean. In addition, the strings attached to balloons are generally plastic. This makes them single-use waste in the same way as shopping bags and straws, and releasing them into the environment is litter.
Wealthy German, a Laguna Beach environmentalist and founder of Project O who proposed and pushed his city’s balloon ban recognizes that balloons are not the only threat to the ocean. But he sees them as symbolic of the larger problem of plastic waste, fishing lines and gear being left in the sea to endanger the animals that live there. He hopes the bans will inspire people to “rethink the way we look at plastic. When people say they throw things away, there really is no way. There’s no such thing.”
He is right. And until people start to realize that, balloon and straw bans are the inevitable result.