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.”
When Lee Botts died October 5 at age 91, the Great Lakes lost one of their best—and most faithful and effective—friends.
Although perhaps not well known in Michigan, Lee was a legend in the Great Lakes environmental community—particularly in northwest Indiana. She not only made our freshwater seas cleaner and more vibrant because of her work, but with constant, generous mentoring, passed her skills on to succeeding generations of advocates.
Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and president, said, “When you met and worked with Lee, she became your mentor whether you knew it at the time or not. You knew she was a leader, one who led and worked passionately for the integrity of the Great Lakes, but also as a champion of the integrity of the process and the persons involved, whom she challenged to do the right thing. She was always prepared, saw the next strategical moves, and was fiercely articulate when she spoke or wrote. Her legacy includes much of the policy and values that protect the Great Lakes today.”
Long before I met her, Lee had begun a lifelong love affair with the remarkable sand dune region of northwest Indiana. In 1959, Lee had joined the Save the Dunes Council, an organization dedicated to saving what remained of the threatened dunes on Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline, sustaining a battle begun decades earlier that finally culminated when Congress established the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966. She carried on the work in her later years.
Lee founded the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center within the Indiana Dunes National Park. The center offers year-round environmental education programs and overnight nature-camp experiences for grade-school students and teachers. Around 14,000 students from Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, visit the Center annually.
Lee schooled me and many young men and women in matters of the Great Lakes. She significantly influenced my outlook on, and understanding of, everything related to the Great Lakes, and Lee’s advice continues to shape my views today.She was generous to me and many others with her time and attention.
“The Palisades nuclear plant was the last nuclear power plant built on the American shores of the Great Lakes, in large part, because of Lee and the precedents she and a few others set in challenging its licensing. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement became a powerful tool for holding the United States and Canada accountable for protecting the Great Lakes, in part, because she fought to make it so. She believed fervently that we need to invest in the next generation of leaders, and was a mentor to so many, including me.”
Jane adds: “She was a master strategist, understanding policy, political power, and the power of public action. I was always impressed by the stacks of environmental impact statements and reports in her cottage. She chose to pay attention and act. She knew how to drive policy as an activist, and as a public employee, and nimbly shift from one role to the other over the course of her life and career. She knew when she was in the dumps, and feeling discouraged, and how to take a break, and renew her energies to keep making a difference. And, on top of all this, she was a great cook and generous friend.”
One of my favorite memories of Lee is a night I spent in her house in the Indiana Dunes. It was mid- to late June, the beginning of deep summer. It was sultry and breezy. As I recall, we drank wine as she told Great Lakes stories. The sound of Lake Michigan surf was faint in the background. The choir of frogs in the interdunal wetland was much louder. Here we were, less than 45 miles from downtown Chicago by car, and I could imagine that it had sounded and felt like this, at this place, 150 years earlier. It was Lee’s place.
Bill Davis, environmental attorney and long-time Great Lakes advocate, remembers Lee’s philosophy and spirit. “Lee had a very narrow definition of what was impossible, and from a political point of view, that is an extremely important and powerful concept. There was very, very little that Lee truly thought could not be done. I remember during the ’80s when the Great Lakes movement was discussing what our position should be on discharge of persistent toxins; it was Lee’s influence directly and through those she had mentored that led us to the position of zero discharge. I believe that would have been unthinkable without Lee.”
“To this very day,” Bill continues, “that notion of a limited sense of the impossible sticks with me, as evidenced by the project I am currently working on to completely rethink how we manage water to ensure we protect human health and the environment. I am not sure I would have understood that that was a real option without Lee’s influence.”
She was an effective leader who became a Great Lakes defender when men still assumed they ran the world and knew better. She did not give them an inch. Her legacy to the women of succeeding generations in the Great Lakes environmental movement is mammoth, but she also left the men—including this one—with appreciation of our place on this Earth, the need to cherish it, and the tools to protect it.
Jane Elder says, “Her passing marks the end of an era in the Great Lakes, but her legacy will live on for generations to come in the beauty of the dunes she loved, the sparkle of clear water on a Great Lake, and a new generation willing to love them and fight for them to keep these treasures alive and thriving.”
Dave Dempsey is the senior policy adviser at FLOW.
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.
The excitement when packing for a trip to the beach is palpable; we select our favorite sun hats, towels and snacks while our children gleefully nestle toys and buckets for sand castles into the day bag. We hope that the sun will shine bright and Lake Michigan not be too frigid or choppy; and we expect that the beach where we recreate and relax will be clean and safe for our families.
The reality is that many of our Michigan beaches are sullied by refuse and littered with food wrappers, soggy cigarette butts, and small plastic pieces of mysterious origin. In an extreme case, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore staff found thousands of pieces of broken glass deliberately spread in April on the Lake Michigan beach near the Good Harbor picnic area.
Whether littered on-site or carried from elsewhere in the watershed, unsanitary garbage on our coasts puts-off beach-goers and infringes upon the public’s right to enjoy the shoreline—a great Michigan summertime tradition that’s protected by the public trust doctrine.
Upon entering a body of water, these bottle caps, balloon fragments and straws tangled in summer berms pose another danger to the health of wildlife and people, threatening public trust uses as waves, wind and sun break down materials into small pieces called “microplastics”. Microplastics are known to be harmful to wildlife and are present in Great Lakes drinking water. The prevalence of plastics on our shorelines and in our waters has prompted local beach cleanup efforts.
Microplastics Present in the Great Lakes
The general awareness of plastic pollution in earth’s oceans (and scientific study of the issue) currently exceeds the awareness and scientific understanding of the effects of microplastics (including microfibers) in the freshwaters of the Great Lakes. As USGS put it, “the microplastics story is large and complex”.
But we do know that microplastics are present in our waters.
A United States Geological Survey (USGS) page based on a 2016 study emphasized that one plastic particle per gallon of water was found in Great Lakes Tributary Water; 1,285 particles were found per square foot in river sediment. 112,000 particles were found per square mile of Great Lakes water. Since 2016, plastics have continued to accumulate in the Great Lakes.
Microplastics and Wildlife, Human Health
The Great Lakes support a multitude of wildlife; aquatic insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds; and provide drinking water for approximately 40 million people human and non-human species alike, we all need water to survive; our health is interconnected within the hydrosphere.
Freshwater and marine aquatic wildlife have displayed ill effects from ingesting microplastics. According to National Geographic, “Experiments show that microplastics damage aquatic creatures, as well as turtles and birds: they block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behavior, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output. Their stomachs stuffed with plastic, some species starve and die.”
Chemical harm from ingesting microplastic causes further concern. Heavy metals, flame retardants and antimicrobials which adhere to plastic surfaces have been associated with endocrine disruption in humans and cancer (via National Geographic).
Since the composition of plastic materials varies greatly, estimating toxicity of plastic is difficult, as is predicting toxicity as chemicals move up, through the food web; and eventually to us, through consumption of wildlife (via National Public Radio).
We who drink Great Lakes water are ingesting microplastics through our taps. So miniscule in size, microplastics pass through water treatment facilities and into our cups. Microplastics are even turning up in beer brewed from Great Lakes water.
Opting for bottled water may not decrease the risk of ingesting microplastics; in fact, total microplastics in bottled water are evidenced to exceed microplastics in tap water.
Performing beach cleanups supports our community’s right to enjoy our shorelines and can prevent the introduction of some plastics into the Great Lakes. Alliance for the Great Lakes reports that every year, through its “Adopt-a-Beach” program, “15,000 volunteers hit the beach and remove about 18 tons of trash.”
Seefried and Depauw collected a total 24.36 pounds of trash during their June 1 cleanup at Bryant Park in Traverse City. Local organizations supported the initiative; collection buckets were provided by the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Center. Volunteers, equipped with gloves and data sheets, combed the shoreline public park and, over an approximate area of 550 feet, removed 707 cigarette filters, 236 foam pieces, and 459 plastic pieces. “When you’re actually on the ground picking it up, there’s kind of a ‘wow’ factor—of how much is actually there,” said Seefried.
A June 29 cleanup performed at Sunset Park yielded 387 cigarette butts, 227 pieces of small foam, and 253 small plastic pieces. Seventy-five food wrappers were also picked up over the area of 261 feet. At the end of the process, 11.7 pounds of trash no longer littered the park—an immediate benefit to the community.
FLOW can equip you with beach cleanup kits (containing items such as gloves, pencils, clipboards, data sheets, trash bags, and buckets) to use independently. FLOW’s Lauren Hucek encourages anyone interested to rally their friends, families, and coworkers to host their own beach cleanups. Please choose sites that offer public waste receptacles or prepare to dispose of trash privately; recycle when possible. Email Lauren Hucek with questions and requests for kits, or call the FLOW office at 231-944-1568.
Plastic is so ingrained and pervasive in our systems, can the independent effort of individuals cleaning beaches make any difference? Are beach cleanups effective?
“Honestly, I think we take the beaches in our area for granted a little bit,” said Seefried. “The point of this work is to clean the beach—but also to raise awareness.”
We know that plastics are in our water—and in our bodies. We know that microplastics are harmful to wildlife, and that it is not understood how they may be harmful to people. But there’s something about actually picking through the refuse on our beaches that sticks with us; we wonder, will a fiber of this cigarette butt; this lost sock; this disposable diaper; one day slip down someone’s throat via a glass of drinking water?
Performing beach cleanups prompts us to consider our own choices and to get involved with the overarching threat to Great Lakes water, wildlife, and our own health—plastics.
Congratulations to Alliance for the Great Lakes, citizens and organizations in Wisconsin and Michigan, and Council of Canadians for leading the way to deny Elkhorn’s request to improve a barge dock in Superior, Wisconsin to transport dirty tar sands oil over the Great Lakes. With citizen vigilance, persistence, and growing awareness that these Great Lakes are a commons held and treasured as a perpetual public trust for benefit of all citizens, proposals to put the Great Lakes in harms way like this will more and more fall by the wayside treating these precious waters as a trust for each generation. A basic principle of public trust and commons law and policy is the standard that requires full and complete information proving and assuring that a proposal, if authorized, will not violate or impair this public trust. If that cannot be shown, then it is never proper and should note be authorized. A huge thank you to Wisconsin Ministry of Natural Resources for holding Elkhorn to this standard.
Council of Canadians applauds Wisconsin government pausing Great Lakes tar sands project
The Council of Canadians is congratulating Wisconsin’s Ministry of Natural Resources on its decision to reject Elkhorn Industries’ application for dock repairs that would eventually lead to the construction of an oil terminal from which tar sands and fracked oil would be shipped across the Great Lakes.
“We are heartened that the Wisconsin government has listened to the local community as well as communities around the Great Lakes,” says Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians. “The Ministry is doing the right thing by pressing pause on this bigger project to ask more questions about the plan to ship tar sands and fracked oil through the Great Lakes.”
Media reports noted that public comments influenced the agency’s decision to demand much more information from Elkhorn Industries.
“The fight to protect the Great Lakes from irresponsible and short-sighted oil projects is far from over,” says Emma Lui, Water Campaigner with the Council of Canadians. “Calumet’s oil barge dock is on the radar of U.S., Indigenous and Canadian groups and communities, and Calumet can expect a lot of noise if it tries to push this plan through.”
Earlier this year Calumet Specialty Products announced it was considering an oil shipping terminal at the harbour in Superior, Wisconsin, which is located on the western tip of Lake Superior. That same week, Elkhorn Industries submitted a permit application for a $25-million upgrade to its dock, which is connected by an existing pipeline to Calumet’s 45,000 barrels per day refinery in Superior.
In December, the Council of Canadians, on behalf of 16 of its local chapters and tens of thousands of supporters around the Great Lakes, made a submission to the Ministry raising concerns about the threats the project presented to the Great Lakes, the increase in tar sands expansion and the need to obtain free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous communities like the Bad River Band. The Council urged the Ministry “to stop this dock repair project and shut down the broader oil terminal and shipment project in order to protect the Great Lakes and other shared waterways.”