There is no such thing as an environmentally friendly released balloon
By Nicole Rivard
Pharaoh, a four-year-old male peregrine falcon, is an ambassador for A Place Called Hope Rehabilitation Center in Killingworth, CT, spreading the message that all balloons should be disposed of properly, and that they should never be set free to float into the environment for any reason.
He has first-hand knowledge of how balloons—along with their plastic parts and strings—lose their innocence after being released.
When he was just one year old, Pharoah was found dangling from a treetop, entangled in a balloon ribbon that had gotten wrapped around his left wing. As he struggled to free himself, the ribbon tightened, leaving his wing permanently damaged.
“Pharaoh was left un-flighted and unable to return to freedom simply because of an improperly disposed of balloon,” said Christine Cummings, president of A Place Called Hope. “This falcon informs people of all ages about the reality of balloon entanglement victims. He travels across Connecticut sharing his story with schools, libraries, garden clubs, scouts, elderly housing, and land trusts to spread the message that ‘balloons blow, don’t let them go.’”
A bill that would make it illegal to let balloons go in Connecticut passed the House but did not get called for a vote in the Senate. Friends of Animals testified in support of the bill during a public hearing on Jan. 30 and had been advocating for it ever since. We plan to get it reintroduced and passed in CT next year and get a similar bill introduced in New York.
“Friends of Animals applauds state Rep. Irene Haines and members of the Environment Committee for their support of this legislation because wildlife who eat balloons, such as sea turtles, seals, whales, birds and other marine animals, die as a result,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “Rep. Haines has pointed out that releasing balloons is really throwing garbage into the air, and littering is illegal in Connecticut. Even without mandating a fine, FoA believes this legislation is a powerful, necessary tool to help educate communities to prevent intentional releases of balloons to commemorate a celebration or other life event. In the months ahead, we are committed to educating people that they can still celebrate but without harming animals.”
Friends of Animals is targeting schools and universities, parent groups, wedding venues and places of worship.
During the last six years on average, Save the Sound volunteers collected more than 400 foil (Mylar is a brand) or latex balloons each year in Connecticut. They are the most common trash found floating in Long Island Sound.
Connecticut’s waters are home to four species of sea turtles who often mistake latex balloons for food. When sea turtles washed up on shore were sent to a Connecticut aquarium for autopsies, their intestines were clogged by balloons.
Restrictions do not go far enough
Hawaii, Maryland and Virginia are the only other states that prohibit outdoor balloon releases altogether. California, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Rhode Island and Tennessee have restrictions.
“Never compromise when it comes to the environment. If you want to ban balloon releases, don’t allow a certain number to be released,” said Suzanne Frazer, president of Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaiʻi, who got the Speaker of the House to introduce the Hawaii bill in 2020. “Because every balloon is a potential killer of wildlife.”
To educate legislators ahead of Committee hearings, Frazer used a 2019 study that found balloons are the highest-risk plastic debris item for seabirds—32 times more likely to kill them than ingesting hard plastics.
“Because they are soft, balloons can’t be moved through the digestive tract. They become sticky and gooey and cause blockages, starvation and death,” Frazer said.
A study by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute completed in the Gulf of Mexico determined that 5 percent of the dead sea turtles found had ingested balloons. Researchers observed balloons floating in seawater still retaining their elasticity after 12 months.
There’s plenty of other data underscoring the need for every state in the U.S. to enact outright bans on balloon releases. A 2016 report ranked balloons third after fishing gear and plastic bags/utensils as litter items that posed the greatest entanglement and ingestion risk to seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals.
From 2016-2019, volunteers participating in the International Coastal Cleanup reported more than 29,800 littered balloons in MidAtlantic states—New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Of these, 15,076 balloons were found in New York, 6,626 were found in New Jersey, and Virginia volunteers found 4,154 balloons.
The negative impacts of balloon litter can occur great distances from their point of release. Notably, in 2006, a beach cleanup volunteer in Virginia found a balloon with an attached note indicating that the balloon had been released in Oklahoma, more than 1,300 miles away.
“I took this on to save lives,” Frazer said. “Balloon releases are unnecessary. People do them without thinking about the consequences. We witnessed the balloon litter increase on Hawaii beaches in May and June, which are graduation times. We’ve also witnessed large balloon releases on the TV news for celebration or commemoration. It upset me every time I saw it.”
TAKE ACTION: Other ways to remember & celebrate
To remember a loved one: Distributing native seeds to plant; installing a bird bath or bench at a park near a loved one’s home; creating a wildlife garden with native plants that will attract butterflies and birds; or lighting candles or luminaries.
For birthdays and celebrations: Blowing bubbles, lighting sparklers and playing musical instruments are all uplifting and don’t harm the environment or wildlife. A gift of a plant they started from a seed is a great activity and take-home gift for children.
Joyful wedding send-offs can include ribbon wands, glow sticks, LED wands or sparklers.
Types of balloons
Latex balloons are made with the sap from a rubber tree. During the manufacturing process many chemicals are added to raw rubber including pigments, oils, curing agents and accelerators. While natural latex balloons are considered biodegradable by some, it has been argued that latex balloons may take several months to several years to biodegrade.
Foil balloons are often incorrectly referred to as Mylar balloons. “Mylar” is a brand name for a special type of polyester film. Foil or metallic balloons are made of plastic (nylon) sheets coated with polyethylene and metallic materials that are sealed together with heat. These metallic inks and paints flake off when exposed to environmental factors leaving a clear plastic balloon.