RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Balloon releases can look picturesque, especially as they most often honor lost loved ones. But the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation recently reached out to NBC12, asking to demonstrate what happens to those balloons, when they reach Virginia shores and wildlife.
Across the world, there is a growing push to take the air out of balloon releases. Balloons drifting away in the sky have been documented to travel well over a thousand miles, according to a 2018 Longwood University study, gauging how balloon debris impacts Virginia beaches, coastlines, waterways, and animals.
Researchers documented how the latex, foil and plastic ribbons infiltrate Virginia ecosystems and the bodies of animals.
Animals like the sea and river turtles mistake balloons floating in the water for food. Once ingested, the animal will likely die after suffering trauma to its digestive system, said Rachel Harrington, a park interpreter at Pocahontas State Park.
“(Balloons) are going to cause impactions. So, that’s going to prevent animals from being able to properly digest their food,” said Harrington.
Balloons getting tangled in trees and forests, or wrapped around animal limbs, can also be detrimental to wildlife. Birds are especially vulnerable.
"I've come across birds along the James River that have been trapped (by balloons)… either by their neck or by a wing," said Nathan Burrell, deputy director for government and community affairs at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“(Birds) have been autopsied and their guts are just filled with plastic debris.”
According to the study by Longwood University, 40 percent of debris recovered on Virginia beaches was balloons.
“(A balloon) lands in the ocean... a stream... a river. The river takes it out to the bay. The bay takes it out to the ocean. Ocean currents push it back up on to land,” said Burrell. “So, where do we find this debris? On our Barrier Islands, and these are very sensitive spaces."
Currently, Virginia is one of five states that ban mass balloon releases. It’s illegal to let go of more than 50 at a time, in the Commonwealth. Proposed legislation to ban releasing balloons altogether, died in the Virginia General Assembly, this year.
But the movement to deflate balloon releases continues to take off around the world. More individual cities are imposing bans. Alternatives are being pushed, like lighting candles, using pinwheels or bubbles, and planting trees or gardens to commemorate a loved one or celebrate an occasion.
Lorna Ohara, executive director for The Balloon Council, which lobbies on behalf of the balloon industry, sent NBC12 a statement reading in part, “Balloons should always be weighted and not released... The Balloon Industry operates with an eye on the environment.”
Balloon supporters argue that latex balloons are biodegradable since they’re originally made from the sap of trees.
However, environmentalists say it could take years for latex to break down, and that the term “biodegradable” doesn’t mean “harmless.” Foil balloons don’t biodegrade at all.
“So a balloon or any type of trash... can cause some major damage,” said Harrington.
If you do use balloons, conservation experts recommend deflating the balloon and disposing of it in the garbage, since a landfill is the lesser of two evils.
Foil balloons can be refilled or repurposed, like converting them into confetti or a gift bag.
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