We have come a long way as a nation since the days of Woodsy the Owl’s plea, “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!” Most of us understand the impacts of careless littering and have at least made strides in the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle trifecta. But we are still seeing the harmful impacts of litter, plastics, and other debris that manage to reach marine environments and risk harming marine life. Although most of us need not be reminded to toss wrappers or our picnic trash into a proper rubbish bin, we could fine tune our choices and behaviors and expand our knowledge of how we impact nature with unintended litter. This might require us to dig a little deeper than choosing whether to use a straw or in which bin to place our soda can (though these remain important too). One area that deserves closer examination is in how we celebrate or honor loved ones and special events.
It is hard to imagine that something as wonderful as a birthday celebration, the honoring of a well-lived life, or the acknowledgement of an accomplishment could be harmful to nature. These seem like disparate factors. However, there is a common thread that often ties these events to harmful impacts on marine life – balloons!
Balloons have long been used in times of celebration for decorations but are also commonly used for a more personal reason. Individuals find a sense of joy in sending off colorful balloons into the sky and might also feel something deeper when sending up a message to a lost loved one attached to a balloon string. Some have used balloon releases to offer a sense of personal healing as it symbolizes the release of something negative in their lives. And many times, balloon releases, whether symbolic, honorific, or celebratory, occur on private land. Little thought is given to the balloon once it disappears into the horizon or flies so high it can no longer be seen. The problem is that while the released balloons are now out of sight and the event is over, the impact remains. After the balloons burst or slowly deflate, they eventually make their way back to the ground, sometimes miles away from where they were released. At this point, they turn from objects of celebration or symbols of new beginnings to objects of harm.
Balloons are commonly found on beaches and along the shorelines, trapped in protected sea turtle nesting areas. You might be surprised by the fact that balloon debris has been discovered miles out into the ocean. While all marine animals can become victim, sea turtles are especially vulnerable as they often mistake the balloons for jellyfish, one of their favorite meals. Even balloons considered to be environmentally friendly, and biodegradable can take years to break down which means they remain a threat to marine life.
This past year Virginia became the first state in the union to make it illegal to intentionally release balloons and the Aquarium has proudly advocated for this legislation for a long time. (Read more in an earlier blog post.) But, while we want everyone to join us in preventing balloon litter, we are also excited to be part of a campaign to promote alternative methods of celebrating big moments in our lives in a manner that does not harm marine life. In fact, there are ways we can celebrate that will have positive impacts on nature.
The Aquarium joined forces with other Aquariums and PreventBalloonLitter.org to get the word out about fun, creative, and environmentally positive ways we can enjoy our celebrations. For a birthday party, kids could enjoy blowing bubbles or making paper airplanes. Consider sending off a newlywed couple with bird seed or waving sticks with colorful streamers attached. For an after-sunset send-off, how about guests lining a path holding candles? In place of balloons as party favors, send guests home with seeds to plant a garden or native wildflower seed to sow along the roadside or in large open areas. For older guests, consider thanking them with a tree planting or an animal sponsorship in place of traditional parting gifts. These long-term alternatives give us better and more sustainable ways of honoring one’s legacy. The ideas are endless, and you can find many more at preventballoonlitter.org.
The challenge is not in answering “how will we possibly be able to celebrate a birthday party or send off a graduate into her adult life?” The challenge now is in rewiring our minds to answer, “how can I honor this event or this person in a way that will sustain the memory as part of our world for years to come?” Planting native wildflowers or a tree for example will honor someone for generations. It also gives those of us seeking to honor someone a sense of being a part of conserving the beautiful and precious natural world. This is truly a win-win on so many levels.
So, where to begin. We can all start with the simple decision to stop intentionally releasing balloons and for accountability, we ask you to join us in signing a pledge demonstrating your commitment to this decision. You can sign the pledge at the button below. Next is the fun part! Continue with your celebrations. Continue honoring your loved ones and marking those milestones. But get creative and do these things without balloons. Go to preventballoonlitter.org to find more ideas and be sure to share your ideas with others! Join us on our social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) so we all can share ideas with each other! The time for this mind-shift is long overdue and together we can make small changes that will mean huge behavioral differences in the next generation of celebrants. In fact, some of you reading this might not have a clue who Woodsy the Owl even was and yet the impact of his messages remains today.