Rachel Kippen, Our Ocean Backyard

I got my first big vibe from balloon pollution during a musical performance at San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival in 2011 at Golden Gate Park. As they finished their set, a musician launched hundreds of red helium-filled balloons into the darkening night sky. It all seemed so absurd, this act of throwing trash into our airspace, a form of massive trash. I came home from the concert knowing that I would spend the next morning scouring Ocean Beach to pick up the remains of their damage.

NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Board hosts a Conservation Working Group (CWG). Local nonprofit organizations collaborate in the CWG, including Save Our Shores, the Marine Mammal Center, and community members affiliated with Oceans Protection. One of the CWG’s goals is to reduce balloon pollution in the bay. This year, the task force is sending official letters to school districts along the Central Coast to encourage a ban on balloons on campus and at school-sanctioned ceremonies, namely upcoming graduations. and in person.

A “It’s a girl!” The gendered birth announcement balloon hangs near where California brown pelicans roost alongside other seabirds. (Bart Selby/Contributed)

Balloons are such an effective pollutant that it feels like they were created to cause the greatest environmental damage. When filled with helium, an increasingly precious resource, a balloon can travel distances of over 1,000 miles. They are light, carried effortlessly by the wind when in the sky, and similarly carried by stormwater and ocean currents below. Depending on their shape, balloons can have a large surface area that acts like a sail, blowing them across the surface of the ocean.

Aluminum and plastic helium-filled balloons typically include tie lines, plastic valves, tie discs and clips that pose entanglement and ingestion hazards to seabirds , turtles, marine mammals and land creatures. The remains of deflated balloons on land or at sea are often mistaken for food and eaten by wildlife. Because plastics cannot be digested, balloons can cause blockages in the digestive tract and create a false feeling of fullness.

Animals will stop eating real food, leading to starvation and premature death. In March 2019, a study published by the University of Tasmania found that balloons are the most risky plastic debris for seabirds – 32 times more likely to kill than ingesting hard plastics. Researchers analyzed the cause of death of nearly 2,000 seabirds from more than 50 species, concluding that “balloons or balloon fragments were the marine debris most likely to cause mortality, and they killed nearly of one in five seabirds that had ingested them”.

Bart Selby is a member of the Conservation Working Group and sits on the Sanctuary’s Advisory Board. “Surprisingly, animals that don’t ingest balloon debris can also fall victim to it,” Selby says. “Brown pelicans, especially young ones, will pick up and play with almost anything they can that floats past their perches.

Bags, drink containers, sticks, feathers and, yes, deflated balloons. Ropes and closing discs then wrap around the wings and legs, maiming and killing these magnificent birds. Selby spends a lot of time observing and photographing California brown pelicans in the harbors and swamps around the sanctuary, and has documented the impact of balloon pollution on marine life, especially seabirds.

Particularly relevant at a time of increasing forced power cuts and climate-induced drought, drifting balloons can land on power lines and cause blackouts and fires. According to PG&E, the number of power outages caused by metal balloons in the Central Coast service area has more than doubled in the past decade. Outages are so common that PG&E releases educational campaigns ahead of Valentine’s Day to encourage responsible ballooning practices.

Laura Arnow, a science and technology coach at Calabasas Elementary School, worked with her students to reduce balloon pollution. Through their ocean science and conservation units, Arnow’s classes make connections between persistent pollutants and key areas for waste reduction. Calabasas students even created a short video to educate their campus and district about balloons for Valentine’s Day celebrations. “We have eliminated balloons on campus, yes, but we want to extend this education to our wider community. It’s not just diplomas, even if it’s a big consumption point. These are other great parties and birthday celebrations. Our students normalize behavioral change in all facets of their lives,” says Arnow.

In 2021, Arnow and Calabasas students achieved a hard-earned victory. Calling on the PVUSD School Board, two green teams led by students from Calabasas and Starlight Elementary Schools addressed the leaders, sharing their knowledge about plastic pollution and their concerns about the use of balloons.

In July 2021, the PVUSD School Board passed the “Environmental Sustainability Resolution” which includes goals related to climate, sustainability, and access to nature, as well as the bold banning of “all balloons on District property or in conjunction with any official PVUSD sponsored activity, including but not limited to District events, sports, fundraisers, dances, graduations.

“Students should get all the credit. They have such heightened awareness and act like enforcers. They are mortified by the pollution of the balloons. Some students witnessed the release of balloons in a neighborhood near campus. We have a large redwood tree in front of our school. When the students returned to in-person learning during the pandemic, they immediately reported a balloon bomb at the top of the tree. It’s still up there and they’re talking about it,” Arnow says. “It’s more common for an adult to make a mistake about balloons, and students are the first to point this out. For example, a staff member received a bunch of Mylar balloons on Valentine’s Day, and it was our students who raised the issue. They are really insightful and they care to follow through. According to Arnow, Calabasas and Starlight both enjoyed a balloon-free graduation ceremony in 2021. The students signed a pledge to help remember the promise made by the two schools.

This year, Arnow believes that PVUSD can continue to be a leader in reducing pollution as long as each campus lives up to the commitment made by the board.

Planning graduations without a balloon requires some foresight. In their outreach to schools, the Conservation Task Force suggests blowing bubbles from machines or large wands, the use of fabric flags and Dori Poles, fabric banners/garlands, flowers and tissue paper pom poms, recycled drums and throwing and planting native seeds and plants in honor of this milestone.

If you are a teacher or administrator interested in circulating the balloon request letter, email Rachel Kippen at newsroom@SantaCruzsentinel.com

Rachel Kippen is an ocean educator and sustainability advocate in Santa Cruz County and can be reached at newsroom@santacruzsentinel.com.