Why Local Governments Are Considering Balloon Release Bans

The bill would not punish accidental balloon releases, but intentional violators could face a fine of up to $250.

The bill would not punish accidental balloon releases, but intentional violators could face a fine of up to $250. Shutterstock


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Releasing balloons is tantamount to littering, according to one Maryland elected official.

Several years ago, Jay Falstad’s daughter found a cluster of balloons on a lake near the Eastern Shore of Maryland. One balloon bore a handwritten note with a phone number, imploring whoever retrieved the bunch to call and say where they’d been found.

“So we called the number,” said Falstad, executive director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association. “They were released four days earlier from Dayton, Ohio—460 miles away.”

Falstad was shocked. After that find, he began noticing withered balloons everywhere—draped over tree branches, floating in waterways, abandoned in fields and along roadways. His colleagues in the environmental community were seeing them, too. So were fishermen and farmers. The problem, he thought, needed attention. So he called Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Chris Corchiarino and suggested a legislative solution.

The result, a proposed county-wide ban on most balloon releases, debuted before the county commissioners last week. The bill, scheduled for a public hearing Aug. 13, would make it illegal for people to intentionally release balloons in Queen Anne’s County unless they’re either biodegradable or photodegradable. Violators would be guilty of a civil infraction and subject to a maximum $250 fine. The ban would not apply to balloons released by the government, weather balloons, hot air balloons recovered after launch, or unintentional balloon releases.

“We’re not trying to create a situation where some kid who lets go of their balloon at the carnival is jumped by the police,” Corchiarino said. “If you want to get balloons for your kid’s birthday party, or you’re getting married and want to have balloons on the chair, go ahead and do it. Just dispose of them responsibly when you’re done.”

The ban is meant to mitigate the environmental hazards posed by both latex and mylar balloons that have been intentionally released. Neither product is biodegradable, but the larger threat comes from the ribbons typically tied to the balloons after they’re inflated.

“They are almost unbreakable, and you’ll find them tangled up with marine life and other animals. It ends being a slow death, because they can’t get out of it,” Falstad said. “Farmers also experience this, where balloons are out in their fields and their animals can get to it. It’s a choking hazard.”

And because people who release balloons have no intention of picking them back up, it’s tantamount to throwing trash out the window of a car, Corchiarino said.

“It’s not a kite you put up and take back down. You release it for the purpose of putting into the atmosphere until gravity takes hold and it lands somewhere that’s not your property,” he said. “It’s littering. We want to create awareness of that fact.”

A handful of municipalities have similar balloon-release bans in place, including San Francisco, Baltimore and Wrightsville Beach, N.C. Statewide bans have been enacted in California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia, and legislatures in multiple states considered proposals this year (bills are still active in New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey, but stalled out in Maine, Arizona, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.)

The Balloon Council, an advocacy group for retailers, manufacturers and distributors, does not explicitly oppose such proposals, though generally prefers education over legislation, said Lorna O’Hara, the group’s spokeswoman.

“TBC is proud of the fact that there has been a steady decrease in intentional balloon releases,” she said. “Our message is simple: balloons should never be released.”

In Queen Anne’s County, the proposal has garnered mostly positive reactions, officials said. It doesn’t ban the sale of balloons or make it more difficult for businesses to sell them, so community impacts should be minimal, Corchiarino said. If it passes, the bill will take effect 46 days later, and will hopefully spark similar measures in other communities, Falstad said.

“I see this as just the first step in a much larger conversation that we need to have,” he said.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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