Michigan floats balloon release ban: Pollution prevention or party pooping?
- Michigan Democrats eye bans to most intentional balloon releases to prevent pollution
- At least 10 other states have similar bans.
- Violators could face fines of up to $800 but bill sponsor says legislation is intended to raise awareness
LANSING — Ever think about releasing a bouquet of balloons at a wedding or for a gender reveal?
You could be fined for it under a new bill Michigan Democrats introduced Tuesday.
Aimed at reducing balloon debris pollution, Senate Bill 294 would prohibit most intentional releases of lighter-than-air balloons outdoors. Violations could result in fines starting at up to $800 and rising to $5,000 for second offenses involving big balloons.
The ban would not apply to hot air balloons used to carry passengers or balloons released for scientific research or meteorological purposes on behalf of government agencies.
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It’s a serious topic, as balloon pollution is blamed for befouling lakes and killing birds, but bans in other states have prompted blowback from critics who call it overkill.
Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Royal Oak Democrat who championed similar legislation in 2021, told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday she was inspired by then-15-year-old Nisha Singhi, a Bloomfield Hills student who grew passionate about the subject after learning about the harm of balloon debris.
By May 2022, at least 10 states had limited or outright banned the intentional release of balloons outdoors, according to a report published by the Office of Legislative Research affiliated with the Connecticut state Legislature. Some municipalities, such as Louisville, Toledo, and Galveston also enacted similar restrictions.
In 2021, Singhi and other advocates sought a ban in Michigan, citing debris in lakes and the risk to birds who sometimes eat latex from balloons.
“Just 5 percent of the items ingested by seabirds are those small latex balloon pieces, but they are responsible for 40 percent of the mortalities,” Megan Tinsley, water policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, told lawmakers during a 2021 House committee hearing in support of the legislation.
Small pieces that break off from a latex balloon are 32 times more likely to kill seabirds than other debris, Tinsley said, referencing a 2019 study on seabird mortality and marine debris ingestion.
Between 2016 and 2018, more than 18,000 balloon pieces were found by volunteers along the Great Lakes shorelines, according to a survey conducted by the environmental nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes, which is neutral on the legislation.
In 2022, the group’s volunteers picked up 3,885 balloons at cleanup events across all five Great Lakes, including 1,032 along Michigan shorelines, according to Jennifer Caddick, vice president of communications for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. The actual count could be higher, she said, since the data came solely from volunteer reports.
Some balloons are not biodegradable, Caddick said.
“(Balloons and other plastics) never actually go away,” Caddick told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday. “They just break down into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces.”
Some in the balloon industry think the problem is over-inflated.
The Balloon Council, a New Jersey-based group representing balloon retailers, told the Detroit Free Press in 2019 the group did not oppose balloon release bans but preferred educational programs.
"We're concerned about the negative stigma associated with the product. Bans on the sale and use side, we oppose that, because we have a lot of small operators — decorators, a lot of women-owned, family-owned small businesses — that would really be harmed,” said the council’s executive director Lorna O'Hara.
McMorrow said the legislation is intended as an “educational dissuasion tool” to increase public awareness and encourage people to find an alternative to celebrate.
“Just like fireworks, sometimes I think people aren’t aware that when you send something up, it has to come down somewhere,” McMorrow said.
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