A deflated balloon on a beach. (Courtesy: NOAA/Credit: Russ Lewis)

Intentional Balloon Release Ban Gets Green Light In Southampton

Do you agree with a ban on the intentional release of multiple balloons at weddings, graduations and other events?

SOUTHAMPTON, NY— The Southampton Town board voted unanimously on Tuesday to support a resolution banning the intentional release of balloons.

The intent of the legislation is to reduce the negative impact that balloons have on the environment, the board said.

"We need to change our behaviors and find better alternatives to products that harm
our environment," said Councilwoman Julie Lofstad, who sponsored the resolution. "Balloons that have been released or thrown in the garbage become hazards to marine life and land animals. They take up space in our landfills. There are viable alternatives, such as butterfly releases, planting a tree in someone's honor, or using whirligigs to attract attention. If we stop and think
about where these single use items go after we are done with them, perhaps we will be more cognizant and careful in our choices."

The legislation represented Lofstad's latest effort to support environmental
sustainability in Southampton; earlier this year, Lofstad sponsored legislation to ban plastic straws and polystyrene in the Town.

Intentional balloon release is an issue that's been in the spotlight recently. For many years, some have marked the passing of a loved one by heading to the beach and releasing a bunch of balloons toward heaven. Balloons have also been used to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, proms and other joyful occasions.

But now, environmental advocates and others, citing the disastrous impacts to the environment, are advocating a ban on balloon releases — and the question of whether or not the ban should be implemented has environmentalists and the party supply industry divided.

According to a report by Global News, the tradition might soon be "deflated," with some states considering a ban on balloon releases.

Bills to limit the intentional release of large numbers balloons are being discussed by lawmakers in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Arizona, Rhode Island, and Maine, said Jennifer Schultz of the National Conference of State Legislatures in the Global News report.

Texas is weighing study on "windblown and waterborne litter "including helium balloons; similar legislation was nixed in Kentucky recently, the report said. Meanwhile, the post added, California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia already have laws that ban or restrict balloon releases.

On Long Island, environmental advocates have urged lawmakers to embrace the ban. East Hampton Town Trustees voted unanimously in December to support a ban on the intentional release of balloons in town; the East Hampton town board adopted the legislation to ban the intentional releases in February.

Some residents say they find far too many balloons on the beach. On Long Island, Ken Stier took photos, which he's shared on social media, "to bring some awareness to the ridiculous amount of balloons that land up on our beaches. These were taken from Field 5, Robert Moses to Ocean Bay. I titled them, 'They don't make it to heaven.'"

The East Hampton ban puts the brakes on large-scale balloon releases at events such as weddings, graduations, and birthdays, or memorial ceremonies held at the beach.

According to the Surfrider Foundation, Eastern Long Island Chapter, which posted about the ban on social media, "current Suffolk County Law permits the release of 25 balloons per person within a 24-hour period. Surfrider and the East Hampton Town Trustees are gathering letters for those in support of banning the intentional release of balloons in towns and villages within Suffolk County."

Those in support so far, the Foundation said, include East Hampton Town trustees, the Peconic Baykeeper, Concerned Citizens of Montauk, Balloons Blow, The Nature Conservancy in New York, Group for the East End, Defend H2O, the Long Island Sierra Club, the Accabonac Protection Committee, the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce, Paddle Diva, and lawmakers including New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming.

East Hampton Trustee Susan McGraw Keber said the unanimous vote was "very exciting."

While she said she does not want to hurt local businesses that sell party supplies and balloons, as a PADI certified rescue diver, she's had a first person glimpse of how balloons hurt wildlife. If sea creatures ingest balloons, they can die — and many die after becoming entangled, she said.

According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, birds, turtles and other animals commonly mistake balloons for food, which can harm or even kill them — and many are strangled by balloon strings.

In addition, coral reefs are impacted by debris in the ocean, McGraw Keber said.

Education is critical, she added: "It really has become a mission for me as an individual to make kids aware of what's going on."

To that end, she's designed T-shirts, as well as a framed image of a fish, made up of balloon remnants, to show how balloons hurt marine and wildlife. McGraw Keber visits local schools to share the important message. All proceeds from T-shirt sales go to a scholarship awarded each year, she added. Involved in beach cleanups, McGraw Keber says she all too often finds mylar and latex balloons, some even found said "Happy Thanksgiving."

The intent, McGraw Keber said, is not to punish a child with a balloon who might accidentally let it go, but to ban balloons at events such as weddings, replacing the balloons with kites or whirly birds on sticks, things that can be used more than once. She also plans to reach out to real estate offices, to suggest they stop using the balloons at open houses, only to be left there when the events are over.

Bottom line, McGraw Keber said, she'd like to see a total ban on the use and sale of balloons, similar to what exists on Block Island.

"It's going to take some time," she said. "You can't take a sledgehammer to people's livelihood. You have to take it slow and make people realize it's for the betterment of the community and environment."

Theo Landi, owner The Party Shoppe in East Hampton, said she would support a ban on intentional release of balloons. "I think it's a stupid thing for people to do. They know that it's bad for the wildlife, so why do it?" she said.

Latex balloons, however, are one hundred percent biodegradable, a "pure, natural product — they come out of the Brazilian rain forest," Landi said.

And, Landi said she feels like so much legislation, including laws meant to address plastic bags and dogs on the beach, the new proposal will be "non-enforceable."

Kevin McAllister, founding president of Defend H2O, supported the measure: "Plastics pollution, if left unchecked, is a death knell for our oceans. And balloon releases are the visible evidence of the problem."

McGraw Keber said she has appeared before Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn's single use plastic commission committee to present legislation that would prohibit the intentional release of balloons; her hope is that the law will be embraced countywide — and across New York State.

McGraw Keber said she has also spoken with Thiele, who has "expressed interest in taking it to Albany." She also intends to propose a ban on mylar and latex balloons. "Single use fossil fuel plastic and latex items that become debris and are harmful to our environment and marine and wildlife are simply wrong," she said.

The hope, McGraw Keber said, is to encourage party stores to "become environmentally concerned and choose to promote other items to sell that are good and fun at the same time."

Andy Brosnan, chairman of the Surfrider Foundation, Eastern Long Island Chapter, said the law currently on the books that allows for the intentional release of 25 balloons per day is "kind of ridiculous."

However, environmentalists face the opposition of a "fairly large balloon lobby. They are fairly powerful and well funded," he said.

For example, in New Jersey, the Balloon Council spent more than $1 million over a number of years fighting back against nationwide balloon bans, according to a report in the Washington Times.

The first step locally, Brosnan said, is to target the "antiquated regulation in Suffolk County" that allows for the release of the 25 balloons per day.

He'd also like to eliminate helium-filled balloons. "Helium is a finite resource," he said. "It's used for scientific purpose and is becoming less and less available and more costly."

Sea life, he said, mistakes the balloons for food.

As a boat captain who works for SUNY Stony Brook Southampton on a marine biology department research vessel, Brosnan said it's not uncommon to pick up two dozen or more balloons within three miles of the coastline.

"I'm not trying to deprive little Johnny of his balloon or to send him to jail for losing his balloon — I don't want to be a party pooper — but I think we have to have a discussion about whether this is the appropriate recreational or entertainment use — to engage in something that has such a direct negative impact on sea life," Brosnan said.

Do you agree with a ban on the intentional release of multiple balloons at weddings, graduations and other events? Why or why not?

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See also Lavallette, New Jersey Bans the Release of Balloons Under New Ordinance