Plastics and the Pandemic

The founder of an initiative to prevent aerial litter and plastic pollution from intentional balloon releases remains committed to the cause.

Lara O’Brien, a master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), launched the initiative in 2019 to call attention to the problem in the Great Lakes region and beyond. Between 2016 and 2018, volunteers with the Alliance for the Great Lakes collected more than 18,000 pieces of balloon debris during coastal cleanups. To help gather more data and raise awareness, O’Brien created a survey website that includes a link to a citizen science survey, photos, interactive maps of debris findings, suggestions for eco-friendly alternatives, and more information about the issue.

While balloons might seem harmless, they pose a significant threat to the environment, livestock, and wildlife. Mylar balloons, made from nylon with a metallic coating, will never biodegrade. While manufacturers claim that latex balloons are biodegradable, added plasticizers hinder the process, and they can take decades, if not longer, 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.

The societal struggles of the past few months have understandably contributed to “an increase in outdoor balloon displays and releases as people were looking for ways to maintain social distancing and still celebrate birthdays, graduations, show support for essential workers, and bring joy and hope to their neighborhoods,” O’Brien says. “Unable to hold memorials or funerals, many also released balloons as a way to express their grief and mourn lost loved ones.”

By becoming aware of the dangers of intentional balloon releases and balloon debris, O’Brien hopes that more people will start using safer alternatives for celebrations, memorials, and other events. “This small change can make a huge difference and, hopefully, lead to less consumption of single-use plastics in other areas of their lives as well,” she said. This month is Plastic Free July and millions of people have joined the global movement, signing a pledge to use less plastic at home, work, school, and in their communities.

“It is an unbelievably difficult, painful, and challenging time, but the issue of plastic pollution persists and is actually worsening due to the pandemic,” adds O’Brien. “Citizen science can be a powerful way to get people to engage and learn about the issue, change their behavior, and also take action to get new laws and policies passed.”

O’Brien, who graduates in August, says she hopes to continue coordinating efforts to reduce aerial litter from both intentional balloon releases and sky lanterns, perhaps through state legislation in 2021. She says she would also be interested in creating a similar study focusing on COVID-19 PPE litter in the Great Lakes. “The virus will, unfortunately, be around for a long while yet and disposable masks and gloves are already having a significant and highly detrimental impact on the environment.”

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