ballons causing ocean pollution


In an effort to safeguard the ocean, a beach town in the United States outlaws balloons.

According to experts, more cities should join the growing legislative movement to cut down on trash, protect birds, and prevent wildfires.

Last month the strict ban on the sale and use of balloons made headlines in Laguna Beach, a California city known for surfers, waves, and rolling hills. The risk of wildfire and the significant amount of marine trash generated by balloons prompted the city council to approve the resolution on Tuesday night. It will be illegal to use balloons of any kind on city property or at events starting in 2024. Those who break the law could be fined up to $500. The exception will be residential homes.

The move is one step in a larger trend. In 2021, Maryland, Virginia, and Hawaii all outlawed intentional balloon releases. In 2022, Hawaii followed suit, and New York and Florida are now considering doing the same. In addition, experts assert that bans on balloons, like those on plastic bags and other pollutants, may become more widespread as public awareness of the environmental harms caused by the popular party item grows.

According to Anja Brandon, associate director of US plastics policy at the non-profit environmental group Ocean Conservancy, coastal cities are at the forefront of legislating even stricter bans on balloons, such as the one in Laguna Beach. She explains that this is in part due to the fact that coastal cities are not only paying for but also experiencing the environmental effects firsthand. “Many of these cities use taxpayers’ dollars to pay for beach cleanup, especially where tourism is important.”

Kara Wiggin, a doctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who studies microplastics in the marine environment, finds that the actions taken by the council make a lot of sense. Balloons harm the environment in two ways: First, there is the latex itself, which marine mammals and sea turtles can consume. Latex balloons are the most dangerous kind of marine debris for seabirds because they are 32 times more likely to kill them when they are ingested than hard plastic.

“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”.

O’Brien asserts that despite the fact that manufacturers assert that some latex balloons are biodegradable, there are no safe balloons to release because they contain plasticisers 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.”

Additionally, balloons have a string that can cause even more harm. Researchers have found strings inside the stomachs of birds, where they can wrap around necks and other body parts. “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.

Nylon balloons coated in a metallic coating called mylar are also a problem: they never separate, enduring in the seas for a really long time, and their sparkling outside is much more befuddling to the ocean creatures. Additionally, they may become entangled in power lines, resulting in power outages or fires.

According to Wiggin, there are fewer balloons than there are plastic bags on the beaches, but they are particularly harmful 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.”

Although it is too early to determine whether these restrictions are having an effect, the Ocean Conservancy organises the International Coastal Cleanup each year and keeps records of the litter that is collected, so additional information may soon be available.

Brandon asserts that comprehensive bills may not necessarily be tailored specifically to balloons when considering what we do regarding balloons on a legal level. “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.

Despite their distinct uses, they accomplish the same things: There is no viable plan for their final days.“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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