The Problem with Balloon Litter

Balloons are unique among all the man-made litter and debris found in the ocean and on the land. Helium-filled balloons (and their attachments including plastic valves, disks and ribbons) are a form of litter that people actually purchase with the intent to release them “on purpose” into the environment.

A Cory’s shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) entangled in a latex balloon and its ribbon. Found at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA. Photo by Christina Trapani.

Balloons, and their attachments (often made of non-biodegradable plastics), have been identified by the Ocean Conservancy as one of the most harmful items to wildlife due to entanglement and ingestion.

As volunteers around the world participate in cleanups to remove trash, litter and discarded waste that accumulates on beaches and along rivers and streams, they make no distinction between picking up an empty soda beverage bottle, a cigarette butt, a tire, or a deflated balloon.

All these items meet the definition of marine debris or litter as defined by NOAA and the United Nations. According to the NOAA Marine Debris Program, marine debris is any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or Great Lakes.

A five-year monitoring project on remote islands in Virginia (USA), found that balloon-related litter was the #1 most common type of marine debris!

Balloons Cause Power Outages
Because of their electrical conduction properties, metallized foil balloons are discouraged for release by the balloon industry and power companies because they can cause outages when they hit power lines. While there is no national collection of data on foil balloons’ impacts on power supplies, Clean Virginia Waterways gathered evidence that up to 20% of power outages are caused by balloons making contact with power lines. In the first eight months of 2015, Dominion Power in Virginia, USA reported 40 balloon-caused power outages, one of which left 14,600 families and businesses without power.

Balloon Release Research in Virginia and Reducing Balloon Debris through Community-Based Social Marketing. Witmer, V., Register, K., & McKay, L. (2017). Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality).

Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife.
Wilcox, C., Mallos, N. J., Leonard, G. H., Rodriguez, A., & Hardesty, B. D. (2016). Marine Policy, 65, 107-114.

Balloon Litter on Virginia’s Remote Beaches: Results of Monitoring from 2013 through 2017.
Trapani, C., O’Hara, K., & Register K. (2018). Clean Virginia Waterways, Longwood University and Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality).