Two new reports by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Program at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University focus on the dangerous effects of balloon litter and reasons why people release balloons.
As part of a five-year study on balloon litter in Virginia’s coastal environments, researchers found more than 11,400 balloon-related items on the state’s beaches.
These studies, both funded by the Virginia CZM Program through grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, represent the most extensive long-term research project focused on balloon-related litter, its impacts, and related solutions. Balloon debris is of special concern because of its potentially severe impact on seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals.
One report, Balloon Litter on Virginia’s Remote Beaches, identifies balloons as the most abundant type of waste on five remote beaches surveyed between 2013 and 2017. Balloons and their attached plastic clips and ribbons made up 40 percent of all debris recorded, followed by plastic bottles and fishing gear. The amount of balloon litter varied from 25 items per mile on Cedar Island, on the Delmarva Peninsula, to more than 272 items per mile at Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
“Deflated balloons, or pieces of balloons, look like food to some animals, and plastic ribbons can cause entanglement,” says Kathy O’Hara, one of the report’s co-authors, and a responder with the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Program.
Balloon recoveries highest on wildlife refuges
Every year in September, the Ocean Conservancy organizes its International Coastal Cleanup in which communities worldwide collect and document the trash littering their coastlines. (This year it’s on September 15.) The most commonly collected items around the world include cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic beverage bottles, and plastic bottle caps. Balloons rank 25th to 30th on the list of collected garbage, but Katie Register, executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways and co-author of the balloon release behavior study, notes that in her state, “the majority of the balloon litter is found on our ocean-facing beaches.”
For example, in 2014, balloons ranked 18th in the state among items collected, but they were the second most commonly found items on the beaches of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, on the state’s northeastern coast. Balloons also ranked in the top three on other ocean-facing beaches, such as False Cape State Park and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
The high rate of balloon recoveries on wildlife refuges is particularly worrisome. While all marine debris has some potential to harm wildlife, says Register, in a study done by the Ocean Conservancy, balloons were identified as among the five “deadliest” types of debris in terms of the risk they pose to marine wildlife.
“What is incredible is the vast distances released balloons can travel,” adds Christina Trapani, co-author of the study. “In February, a latex balloon with a logo from Kansas was found in Hampton, Virginia. If actually released in Kansas, this balloon traveled almost 1,400 miles.”
Purchased to release into the environment
“Balloons are unique among all the man-made debris found in the ocean and on the land,” says Virginia Witmer, co-author of the report, Balloon Release Research in Virginia & Reducing Balloon Debris through Community-Based Social Marketing. “Helium-filled balloons are the one form of litter that people may be purchasing with the intent to release into the environment.”
Interviews and surveys revealed that many people don’t understand that there is no such thing as an environmentally friendly released balloon.
“This partnership of scientists, educators, and government agencies, has provided us with tremendous knowledge about balloon litter in Virginia that informs the steps we need to take to reduce balloon releases at both happy and sad occasions,” says Laura McKay, CZM Program Manager at DEQ.
Partners used this research to launch Joyful Send-off, a campaign to encourage litter-free alternatives to balloon releases at weddings and other celebrations. Virginia’s ongoing research is being shared with other Mid-Atlantic states to raise awareness. And its conclusions are just as relevant everywhere else.
“None of us are anti-balloon,” says Register. “Celebrating with balloons is fun – but at the end of the celebration, we need to pop them and drop them in the trash. There are other ways to celebrate and make lasting memories without harming wildlife.”