. . . Today’s beach survey is one of two annually at this location. It’s part of the MARCO Marine Debris Work Group’s plan to track the abundance, distribution, accumulation, and fate of balloons and their associated litter on Mid-Atlantic beaches. Volunteers and staff in each member state—New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland—conduct similar surveys.
This one is particularly significant because on Oct. 1, 2021, Maryland joined its neighboring states of Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey in banning intentional balloon releases. Some Maryland municipalities, including Baltimore and Ocean City, as well as Queen Anne’s County, already had similar laws on their books. But a statewide law, specifically barring anyone 13 and older from intentionally releasing more than 10 balloons, passed during the 2021 General Assembly.
“In Maryland it’s now illegal to be a plastic balloon litterbug and that’s good news for our land, water, and wildlife,” Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said in a media release. “With the rising tide of plastic pollution, this new law is an important and timely step for the health of our Chesapeake Bay, coast, and ocean.”
Balloons pose a particular threat to birds and marine animals through entanglement and when they are mistaken for food and ingested (a plastic balloon looks remarkably like a jellyfish—a top food item among sea turtles—when floating). Although it is hard to quantify how many animals are killed or hurt by balloon litter, the NOAA Marine Debris Program website cites a 2016 report that “when marine debris experts were asked to estimate which common litter items posed the greatest entanglement and ingestion risk to seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals, balloons were ranked third after fishing gear and plastic bags/utensils.”
According to MARCO, between 2016 and 2019, more than 29,800 balloons were found on Mid-Atlantic beaches during International Coastal Cleanup events. A five-year monitoring project on three remote Virginia beaches found 11,441 balloons and related pieces, making balloons the top marine debris item, surpassing even plastic water bottles.
NOAA also points out that balloons are a unique form of pollution because many people buy them with the specific intent to release them into the air. They’re sent up to commemorate the death of loved ones or to celebrate marriages, among other events. Just two weeks before the October 1 law took effect in Maryland, groups including the Ocean City Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and the Assateague Coastal Trust urged the National Alumni Association of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to cancel a balloon release scheduled as part of a day of remembrance (the association moved the release off campus).
The new Prevent Balloon Litter campaign builds on work by Clean Virginia Waterways and the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, who in 2018 conducted a social marketing study to understand more about why people release balloons and how to motivate them to make a different choice. Among their findings, they learned that many people didn’t realize that balloons fall back to earth, or they believed that latex balloons would harmlessly biodegrade (research is continuing into the fate of latex balloons; plastic ribbon attached to such balloons does not biodegrade). Another finding was that balloons are mostly released at parks, schools, wedding venues, and churches; more recent research added home parties to that list.
When I find a balloon on the beach, I pick it up and dispose of it. I support the release ban.
The Wombat has Late Night With Rule 5 Sunday: Lauren Southern – Canadian Spitfire ready and waiting at The Other McCain.