Note: This is a Guest View I wrote for Clean Ocean Access published in the Newport Daily News last night, May 18, 2016.
If you Google the phrase, “What goes up, must come down” you’ll learn that it’s attributed to Isaac Newton. You’ll also find the following explanation: “Things that are launched into the air will return back down to the ground. Why? Because of gravity, that’s why.” As a resident of Aquidneck Island, I can be found on the beach almost every day, often humming the tune to Spinning Wheel, the song by Blood, Sweat and Tears that begins with Newton’s quotation. Because almost every single time I walk the beach I see the crumpled remains of balloons along the tide line.
Balloons litter our shorelines. Colorful ribbons once clenched by sweaty toddler fists unfurl across the sand like desiccated jellyfish tentacles. And this is one of the biggest problems with balloons—they look just like jellyfish to the critters gulping them down by mistake. Clean Ocean Access (COA) receives regular boating reports revealing that the quantity of balloons found offshore is staggering. Whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and birds have all been found with ingested balloons blocking their digestive systems, slowly starving them to death. Which isn’t the festive image we typically associate with a party balloon tied to someone’s mailbox. Or released en masse to mark a special occasion or memorialize a loved one.
As a bereaved parent, myself, I’ve been cringing for years as folks gather in graveyards and on goal lines to release bundles of balloons. It’s a nice symbol, craning our necks to watch the colorful orbs float up to where we picture our loved ones waiting, hands outstretched, to receive them. Especially our dearly departed children, who will never, ever delight in that iconic symbol of birthday celebrations again. But none of us truly believe that heaven is just a balloon ride away or that our beloveds will actually be the happy recipients of anything we launch into space. Remember Newton? Instead, other creatures will be on the receiving end, but not in the way we’ve intended.
Balloons are usually made of natural latex, which is biodegradable, but the decomposition takes many months, the ribbons even longer. Others are made of Mylar, a kind of foil, and these can float for hundreds of miles before descending. After we’ve watched them float up, up, and away and moved on to other things, the beautiful balloons we’ve released will ultimately either burst or slowly deflate. Gravity ensures their return to earth and that goes for Chinese Lanterns as well. Once the flame burns out, their metal and bamboo remnants entangle birds and choke livestock.
Nationwide, the balloon debris found in beach cleanups has tripled over the past ten years. Here on our island, COA Beach Cleanups have netted over 1800 balloons and fragments in the past three years. One Sunday in May on a weekend marked by both Mother’s Day and school graduations, my son and I picked up over a hundred balloons in the one-mile-stretch of Second Beach. What we see on our beaches is our second chance to clean up this problem but it’s also an ugly reminder that we missed our first chance, which was to think before we released.
A handful of cities and states have enacted laws banning the release of balloons and lanterns, along with the White House, National Park Service, and even Disney World. COA is working to enact an island-wide ban on balloon releases this year as part of our overall goal of eliminating marine debris from the shoreline and changing human behavior to improve ocean health. Our little state is only 37 miles wide and 48 miles long but we have 400 miles of shoreline, much of which is littered with something or other. The Balloon Council spends millions of lobbying dollars to keep balloon releases legal when they should be included in existing litter laws because, after all, that’s what they are.
If you want to memorialize your loved ones or mark a special occasion with something lofty, there are better alternatives. For streams of color high in the air, why not fly kites? How about a mass bubble release? Or monarch butterflies? Homing pigeons? Or my favorite—plant a tree. You can watch it grow and it will provide years of habitat for animals and birds instead of killing them. If we can’t protect the marine life swimming around us here on our island we don’t deserve to call this place our home. And we are all just spinning our wheels.