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US beach town bans balloons to save the ocean

Sep 18, 2023

Experts say more cities should join the growing legislative trend to reduce trash, save birds and protect against wildfires

Laguna Beach – the California city known for surfers, waves, rolling hills – grabbed headlines this week for enacting a strict ban on the sale and use of balloons. The city council passed the resolution on Tuesday night, citing wildfire risk and the fact that balloons are a huge source of marine trash. Beginning in 2024, balloons of all types will not be permitted to be used on public property or at city events, with violators facing fines of up to $500. Residential homes will be exempt.

The move is part of a growing trend. Maryland and Virginia banned intentional balloon releases in 2021, Hawaii followed suit in 2022, with New York and Florida now considering similar measures. And like plastic bags and other pollutants, experts say balloon bans could catch on more widely as awareness rises of the harms that the popular celebratory item causes to the environment.

Coastal cities are at the leading edge of legislating even stricter bans on balloons like the one in Laguna Beach, says Anja Brandon, associate director of US plastics policy at the nonprofit environmental group Ocean Conservancy. Part of that is because coastal cities are experiencing the environmental effects first-hand, but also paying for it, she says. "Many of these cities use taxpayers’ dollars to pay for beach cleanup, especially where tourism is important."

The council's actions make a lot of sense to Kara Wiggin, a doctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who studies microplastics in the marine environment. Balloons are a double-whammy for the environment: first there's the latex itself, which can be eaten by marine mammals and sea turtles. When ingested, latex balloons are 32 times more likely to kill seabirds than hard plastic, making them the deadliest type of marine debris 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," says Lara O’Brien, a contractor with Noaa's Office for Coastal Management, "causing obstruction, starvation, and death".

While manufacturers claim that some latex balloons are biodegradable, there are no safe balloons to release, O’Brien says, as they have added plasticizers that hinder the biodegradation process, and can take decades, or longer, to break down.

Everything takes longer in the water, where it becomes part of the plastic soup that floats through the oceans, Wiggin adds. "A lot of stuff that can break down in soil can't break down in the ocean at all – so even if something says it's biodegradable, it might not be marine biodegradable."

There's also a string attached to balloons, which can be even more damaging. Strings can wrap around necks and body parts, and researchers find them inside 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 – made from nylon with a metallic coating – are also a scourge: they never break down, persisting in the oceans for years, and their shiny exterior is even more confusing to sea animals. They also can get tangled in power lines and cause power outages or fires.

There are fewer balloons than plastic bags on the beaches, Wiggin says, but they’re uniquely damaging and people are less responsible with them.

"People actively release balloons but they don't actively toss plastic bags into the ocean," says Wiggin. "So that's a good low-hanging fruit, especially in Laguna Beach, where the parks are along the water. It's a great easy answer to manage with legislation."

It's too early to say whether these bans are having an impact, but the Ocean Conservancy organises the International Coastal Cleanup every year and keeps data on what litter they find, so there could be more answers soon.

In thinking about what we do about balloons on a legal level, Brandon says comprehensive bills may not necessarily be geared towards balloons in particular. "One of the challenges is a lot of those bills look at single-use plastic packaging – and balloons are this outside monster, separate from the packaging debate," she says.

Although they have a different use, they have similar outcomes: there's no good end of life plan 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."

Wiggin says she likes honeycomb-shaped tissue-paper balloons as decoration. While they don't float in the air, "you can kind of hang them from things, fold them into a little fan, and tie a little cotton string, and it gives the same effect".

"Plastic pollution anywhere impacts the ocean everywhere," says Brandon. "We just have one water cycle."

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