Birthday parties, graduations, weddings are all beautiful occasions when many people will celebrate with balloons — some may even release them in the sky with gusto. But what happens to those plastic balloons once they deflate? Where do they end up?
For years, many environmental groups have pushed for mass balloon releases to be banned — saying that balloon pieces and strings are dangerous to wildlife.
"They are a serious threat to wildlife simply because they are colorful and bright, so wildlife might mistake them for food, and the strings can wrap around their bodies and make it difficult for them to swim or breathe," Emma Tonge, communications and outreach specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told USA Today.
There's plenty of evidence to back up this theory.
Researchers in Australia analyzed the effects that soft plastics like balloons have on seabirds. They discovered that soft plastics are more likely than hard plastics to cause obstructions in seabirds' gastrointestinal tracts. Of the birds examined, nearly one out of five died as a result of ingesting balloons or balloon pieces.
"If seabirds eat plastic their risk of mortality increases, and even a single piece can be fatal," wrote lead study author Lauren Roman, PhD student at University of Tasmania. "The evidence is clear that if we want to stop seabirds from dying from plastic ingestion we need to reduce or remove marine debris from their environment, particularly balloons."
A bird died after being entangled in balloon string near Virginia's coast. (Photo: Pam Denmon/VCU CNS/Flickr)
Several states have already cracked down on large balloon releases. California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia have outright banned them while other states have similar bills under consideration. In Florida, all balloons are completely banned from Palm Beach County beaches and public parks.
Clemson University also decided to end its tradition of releasing up to 10,000 balloons during football games.
One Rhode Island town took it even a step further and banned balloons.
The town of New Shoreham passed an ordinance banning the sale, use and distribution of balloons.
"Balloons pose a risk and nuisance to the environment, particularly to wildlife and marine animals. Anyone who walks the beach or spends time on the water has seen that balloons have become common in the local marine ecosystem," according to a statement on the town's website announcing the ban.
Kenneth Lacoste, first warden of the town council, told CNN, "We are very concerned about the environment. There's a lot of information out there of damages that balloons do to the wildlife."
Lacoste said balloons have frequently been found in the water around the town. In December, the town voted to ban most single-use plastic bags, for the same reason. He said the balloon bill is essentially a follow-up to that earlier legislation.
Eco-friendly alternatives to balloons
Pinwheels can be just as colorful as balloons, but can be used over and over again. (Photo: Otota DANA/flickr)
Balloons Blow, a nonprofit organization, is dedicated to educating people about the dangers released balloons can have on animals, people and the environment. The group points out that all released balloons always return back to the ground as litter. Animals like birds, whales and sea turtles can die after swallowing balloons. Mylar/foil balloons can cause power outages and spark fires. Plus, helium is a nonrenewable resource.
The group suggests environmentally friendly alternatives to balloons, including banners, pinwheels and wildflower seed bombs.
New Shoreham joins other cities that have enacted balloon legislation. Several cities in New Jersey, including Atlantic City, and several cities in Massachusetts, including Nantucket and Provincetown, have banned balloons. Other places have laws that regulate the number of balloons that can be released at once or limit the release of certain types of balloons or sky lanterns.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in April 2018.