Images of stranded sea turtles suffering from blocked digestive tracks or grounded birds entangled in balloon streamers are not what come to mind when people send balloons soaring into the sky. In fact, the usual pairing is balloons with cheerful smiles or minds lost in a memory. For much of the 20th century, weddings, graduations, special events, and of course birthdays have been festooned with balloons. Even in more somber moments, like a funeral or anniversary of a loss, the event might be honored by sending a message of love or remembrance attached to the string of a balloon into the beyond. Hundreds of helium-filled latex or foil-covered plastic balloons are purchased each year with the intent of being released into the environment.
While people find joy or personal satisfaction in letting go of that string and watching as their balloons disappear out of sight, Newton's 3rd law still applies - everything that goes up must eventually come back down. Often these remnants of a memorable occasion are found scattered along shorelines or floating far out in the ocean. Quite tragically, a carelessly released balloon can lead to the ending of innocent life. Balloons are a unique form of litter that can travel great distances, even to remote and uninhabited stretches of Virginia's shoreline. While balloon litter is found inland, it can also accumulate in remote coastal habitats, getting trapped in dune vegetation where birds, sea turtles, and diamondback terrapins go to nest.
Mark Swingle, the Aquarium's Chief of Research and Conservation, has witnessed first-hand the incredible damage that balloons have on our beaches and marine life and has spent valuable time documenting the amount of debris and its effects. In his role with the Virginia Aquarium, he has worked closely with organizations like Clean Virginia Waterways, Christina Trapani Consulting, and Virginia's Coastal Zone Management Program in monitoring coastal shorelines, water quality, and marine animal health, a mission that has been active in the state for more than 25 years. Christina Trapani, also owner of Eco-Maniac, a company that specializes in alternatives to single-use plastics, worked closely with Mark as a field consultant for a marine debris monitoring and research project, Christina also collaborated with Clean Virginia Waterways on a similar project throughout Virginia's remote beaches and barrier islands. In one 4-year, statewide study, balloons were found to be the most common item recorded on two of the four beaches studied. One recent study found more than 270 pieces of balloon litter per mile and another study found more than 210 pieces in just a half-mile stretch of beach! Aquarium staff have conducted coastal surveys, responded to stranded animals, and identified and documented the impacts of balloons on the environment
Knowing that balloons and the accompanying plastic ribbons are among the deadliest forms of ocean trash, efforts have been made to encourage people and government agencies to make changes. For years Mr. Swingle has actively pushed legislatures at both the state and national levels for action to be taken that would ban intentional balloon releases. Tired of seeing the sad impacts on nature, Mr. Swingle embarked on a mission to not only educate consumers of the horrible impact of balloons on our marine wildlife but went even further and has successfully convinced the Virginia state legislature to act. His efforts, and ability to translate tragic effects into usable data and impactful messaging, combined with the support of people like Ms. Trapani and several local businesses and conservation organizations, have led to his dream being realized.
Earlier this year, Virginia House Bill 2159 was approved by the State Senate and Legislative branches and is just awaiting Governor Northam's signature to make it official. In short, the law would prohibit the intentional release or careless disposal of non-biodegradable balloons outdoors. Any person aged 16 and over convicted of violation would face a civil penalty of $25 per balloon. This Act is not about banning balloons or the sale of balloons, but it is about preventing intentional balloon releases, which is littering. We know that balloons can be enjoyed responsibly.
This is just one example of the many ways that Mr. Swingle and the mission of the Aquarium have worked to affect real and impactful change. Our dedication to our mission of marine conservation is foundational to all we do. We invite you to celebrate with us and to thank people like Mark and Christina who work tirelessly and ever-hopefully for change that will protect our amazing planet and all life on it.
Before closing, we also want to cheer for three other amazing milestones that will have positive impacts on the marine environment:
- Earlier this month the Virginia governor signed House Bill 1902 into law which will ban restaurants from using polystyrene foam (a.k.a. Styrofoam™) take-out containers. While all restaurants will be held responsible by 2025, many, like larger chain restaurants will be expected to comply by 2023. Compassionately, this law does allow for small business restaurants facing severe economic hardships after 2020, to apply for an extension if such hardship prevents them from complying.
- The Virginia Governor's office announced a new order that puts the state on a path to eliminate most single-use plastics at state agencies, colleges and universities, by banning several common, but unnecessary disposable plastics and requiring the phase-out of other items by 2025. (Executive Order 77)
- The work of Mark and the efforts of people like Christina are having an impact in Washington, DC. During the week of March 22, a comprehensive bill was re-introduced in Congress to address the plastic pollution crisis – the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. This Act shifts the financial responsibility of plastic pollution from society to the plastic producers. These are all milestones that should be celebrated but the work is not finished. From straws and plastic flatware to detergent bottles and takeout containers, we all need to be much more aware of our choices.
It has been encouraging to see hard work and mission efforts find footing and make progress. With less than 9% of plastics being recycled, more than 91% winds up in landfills. Many experts point out that recycling efforts are not enough and that we can't recycle our way out of this crisis. In Virginia alone, 2 million tons of plastic made it to landfills (or was incinerated*) in 2011, and today that number has exploded to 23 million tons. These numbers are sobering and sad and don't even take into account the marine lives lost. However, with more people adding their voices to the message, change is happening.
So, whether it's in supporting our work through Aquarium membership, writing to our lawmakers, or even just thinking more creatively about how you celebrate an event, every bit helps, and together we can effect change without having to sacrifice times of celebration. In fact, for that next bride and groom send-off, why not grab some eco-friendly bubbles. Who doesn't love bubbles?
*updated on March 23, 2022