By Lara O’Brien
Every day, balloons and balloon ribbons and strings are discovered littering the waters and shorelines of the Great Lakes. Between 2016 and 2018, volunteers with the Alliance for the Great Lakes picked up more than 18,000 pieces of balloon debris during coastal cleanups.
Mylar balloons, made from nylon with a metallic coating, will never biodegrade. While latex balloons are said to be biodegradable, they still take many years to break down. Latex balloons also burst into small pieces that are easily mistaken for food by birds and other wildlife, often with fatal consequences. Balloon debris also includes long ribbons and strings, which can entangle birds and other wildlife, causing serious injury or death.
In order to collect more data about the environmental impact of balloons and balloon releases in the Great Lakes region, I recently created a web survey that can be used to record the date, location, condition, and photo of any balloon debris found. The website, BalloonDebris.org, has a link to the survey and an interactive map of the balloon debris sightings. There are also ideas for eco-friendly alternatives, including how to make your own giant bubble recipe and wand, luminaries, kites, and even crochet water balloons.
The site also includes information on how to get more involved, including how to sign up and participate in the upcoming International Coastal Cleanup Day on September 21. In collaboration with the International Coastal Cleanup, the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ September Adopt-a-Beach Event also will be held the same day. Here is a link to more information on how you can find a beach cleanup near you or how you can organize your own.
Awareness is growing, and a handful of states, including California, Florida, and Tennessee, have passed legislation banning balloon releases. Michigan, however, is not one of them. My hope is that by engaging and participating in this citizen science research, more people will become aware of how pervasive balloon pollution is in the Great Lakes and have a greater understanding of the impact balloons and balloon releases have on the environment and wildlife. Hopefully, this will lead to changes in behavior and changes in policy.
Help raise awareness by learning more about the impact of balloon releases, using green alternatives, and talking with friends and family. You also can reach out to your local leaders at the city, village, township, or county level and urge them to take action to prohibit mass balloon releases and help support statewide Michigan legislation.
Lara O’Brien is a master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). Focusing on Conservation Ecology and Environmental Informatics, her studies aim to utilize GIS and remote sensing technologies to enhance conservation efforts, natural resource management, and public engagement and appreciation of the natural world.