Since balloons were first invented in Great Britain in the 1800s, they've become a favorite way to mark a celebration, but it's a good time to find alternatives. Today, balloon litter—that's latex, foil, ribbons and strings—can be found on every beach, in every ocean, in the world's most remote forests and in the bellies of wildlife.
A single released helium-filled balloon can travel thousands of miles before it deflates and descends. Foil balloons on power lines have caused widespread power outages, and once they're in the environment, deflated balloons of all types can be ingested by wildlife, farm animals and pets.
A deflated latex balloon floating in the water looks a lot like a jellyfish, a staple of the sea turtle's diet. Wild ponies, dolphins, birds and fish routinely mistake balloons for food and suffer when that soft plastic lodges in their digestive tracts. Seals, turtles and other marine animals can become entangled in balloon ribbons, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, balloon-related debris has been found on beaches from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware to New York and New Jersey. In a six-year study, scientists identified pieces of latex, foil, plastic and ribbons, all from balloons, as the most common type of debris found on beaches in Virginia, comprising 40% of all marine debris. Plastic beverage bottles came in a distant second at 22%.
To address this issue, the Maryland General Assembly approved and Governor Larry Hogan signed a bill to ban balloon releases in the state. Backing for the bill was broad and bipartisan. Vice President of Conservation Programs Laura Bankey provided important testimony in support of the bill, which prohibits the intentional release of balloons outside anywhere in Maryland beginning October 1, 2021. Connecticut, Florida and Virginia have also banned intentional balloon releases, and other states are considering similar laws.
It's time to find better ways to celebrate than by releasing balloons. Websites like preventballoonlitter.org offer a wide range of alternatives, including blowing bubbles, creating colorful chalk art, or planting flowers and trees.
If you do get your hands on a helium-filled balloon, don't let it go. Tell others what you've learned and enlist their support. When you're out on the beach, collect balloon litter and any plastic you find. If you don't, chances are an unwitting bird, turtle or seal probably will.