Balloons as litter--a problem we can solve


Balloons become litter when released into the environment. Balloons have a "down" side.


Balloons and their ribbons can be found on just about any beach, and inland too. Animals mistake balloons for food, and they can become entangled in the ribbons.

Photo courtesy of the Ocean Conservancy.



Citizen scientists are being asked to help collect data about balloons found in Virginia between April 22, 2012 and April 22, 2014. This "Earth Day to Earth Day" study is co-sponsored by Clean Virginia Waterways and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. Learn More.

What goes up must come down! Balloons return to the land and sea where they can be mistaken for prey and eaten by animals. Balloons are hazards when they enter the aquatic environment because they can look a great deal like jellyfish—a major source of food for many animals. Sea turtles, dolphins, whales, fish, and seabirds have been reported with balloons in their stomachs. In 1985, an infant sperm whale was found dead of starvation as a result of ingestion of an inflated Mylar balloon which had lodged in its intestines. Ribbons and strings tied to balloons can lead to entanglement.

Instead of balloon releases...

Plant a tree or flowering bush.

Create a wildlife garden that will attract butterflies and birds.

Blow bubbles.

DROP balloons (non-helium filled) from a tall building. Watch people have fun kicking and playing with the balloons. Then, pop them and dispose of correctly.

Release balloons INSIDE a church, gym or ballroom.

Memorial service -- Give everyone a balloon and a sewing pin, and tell them to make a wish for their loved one. On the count of three -- everyone bursts their balloons, sending wishes to heaven.

Cancer-free celebrations -- Give everyone a balloon, a pin and a marking pen. Tell them to write on the balloon the number of years they have been cancer-free. On the count of three -- everyone bursts their balloons. Messages on small pieces of paper can be inserted into each balloon with an inspirational message. After the fun, dispose of the trash correctly.

Outdoor sporting events -- use bands, lights, banners, singers, crowd give-a-ways (towels, noise makers, etc.) to build excitement, but don't release balloons!

Donate books to a local library, food to a local food bank, or pet food to a local animal shelter to celebrate your group's acheivement or to honor a loved one.

We can celebrate with balloons! Just don't let them go!


The mass release of balloons is illegal in several states and cities, including Virginia. Click here for a list of j
urisdictions that have laws in effect dealing with balloon releases, and sample legislation.

If you know of a group that is planning to release balloons:

You can do one of two things. You can contact them and refer them to this website. Encourage them to plant a tree or do something positive for our Earth to celebrate their event instead of releasing balloons.

Virginia's law against the mass release of balloons is in Title 29 of the Code of Virginia, enforced by local law enforcement and prosecuted by local Commonwealth’s Attorney. So, if you know of any plans to release a large number of balloons into the air, notify local law enforcement. Be sure to quote the Code section...they may not be familiar with it. Click here for the complete text of this law.

Thank you for being a good steward of our wildlife!

How long are latex balloons dangerous to wildlife after they enter the ocean?

"Latex rubber balloons are an important category of product in the marine environment. Promotional releases of balloons that descend into the sea pose a serious ingestion and/or entanglement hazard to marine animals. Based on the fairly rapid disintegration of balloons on exposure to sunlight in air, the expectation is that balloons do not pose a particularly significant problem. In an experiment we carried out in North Carolina we observed that balloons exposed floating in seawater deteriorated much slower than those exposed in air, and even after 12 months of exposure still retained their elasticity."

From the article: Plastics and Their Impacts in the Marine Environment by Anthony L. Andrady, Program Manager and Senior Research Scientist, Chemistry and Life Sciences Division, Research Triangle Institute, North Carolina. Proceedings of the International Marine Debris Conference on Derelict Fishing Gear and the Ocean Environment, August 6-11, 2000 Hawai'i Convention Center Honolulu, Hawai'i

What you can do:

Never release a balloon into the air.

Watch your local car dealerships to see if they cut balloons off of cars at the end of a business day. Several people have called Clean Virginia Waterways saying that they have seen this happen. If this is happening, please ask to speak to the car dealership's manager, and inform them of the problems balloons and ribbons create when they are littered into the environment. Encourage the dealership to be good neighbors, and good stewards of our environment. If balloons continue to be cut off of cars, consider writing a letter to the editor of your local paper, or ask your friends to help contact the dealership.

Encourage companies and political candidates to use an alternative form of advertising. If you hear of a planned mass balloon release, contact the event organizer to explain the potential harmful consequence of which they are often unaware, and persuade them to reconsider.

Community groups sometimes release balloons to mark special occasions. Again, you can encourage alternative ways to celebrate community events—maybe planting a tree!

Pick up any balloons or ribbons you find, and dispose of them properly.

Does your state have a ban on mass-releases of balloons? If not, contact your elected officials and urge them to protect wildlife by adopting such a policy for your state. Click here for some sample laws.

More good information about the impacts of balloons as litter and balloons as harmful waste can be found on these web sites:

Here is another example of entanglement and its tragic results. Photo courtesy of The Ocean Conservancy.

Learn More: The Marine Conservation Society in the United Kingdom has more information on the problems that balloons can cause when they enter the world's ocean. They also have a factsheet and downloads with "Don't Let Go" posters and leaflets.

The following information is from Clean Ocean Action in New Jersey, USA.

"Dr. Peter Lutz, noted sea turtle biologist in Florida, published a study in 1990 on the ingestion of latex balloon pieces by sea turtles. It was presented at the Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris. Dr. Lutz' study found:

1. When offered a mix of pieces of clear plastic and brightly colored latex, the turtles showed a strong preference for the latex pieces over the plastic.

2. In experiments with latex only, sea turtles demonstrated that if their appetite is sufficient, they will actively swim towards and ingest latex materials, that all colors are acceptable, and that the amount ingested will depend on their nutritional state.

3. The length of time that the latex remained in the turtle's intestinal tract ranged from a few days to four months, with a peak time period of eight weeks. (Note: the normal gut passage time in sea turtles is approx. 10 days.)

4. Turtles passed multiple pieces bound together, although they had ingested the individual pieces at different times, showing the possible cumulative effect of ingestion of latex balloon pieces.

Evidence of Impacts: Scientists who work with stranded whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles have been looking at the stomach contents of these dead marine animals. These scientists have found balloons, parts of balloons and balloon string during numerous necropsies.

The New Jersey based Marine Mammal Stranding Center has displays of items, including balloons, found in animals that have died and washed ashore.

Releasing balloons into the air is littering, and ultimately the balloons will return to earth. The balloon industry claims that balloons explode in many tiny harmless fragments when they reach a certain altitude. Beach Sweep data refutes this claim. Over 32,000 balloons were picked-up on beaches during the 1999 cleanup - clear evidence that many return to earth intact.

The balloon industry also claims latex balloons are bio-degradable and degrade as fast as an oak leaf. A study published in the scientific journal "Soil Biology and Biochemistry" found that about 54% of oak leaves decomposed in a two-year period, and it takes about four years for oak leaves to completely degrade under natural conditions. Hence, balloons would take up to four years to fully degrade - much too long a time for them to be found and eaten by an unsuspecting animal."


The following is from the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) and Sea Turtle Survival League

The CCC is not against balloons, but is against releasing balloons into the atmosphere, where… "they will eventually return to earth and could pose a danger to a marine or terrestrial animal. It is well documented that sea turtles and other marine animals ingest discarded balloons and/or balloon fragments, mistaking them for natural prey food items. Numerous necropsies on marine animals from sea turtles to whales have shown balloon pieces blocking the throat or intestine.
"1. The balloon industry claims balloons degrade as fast as an oak leaf. IF this were true, balloons would take up to four years to fully degrade - much too long a time for them to be around to be found and eaten by an unsuspecting animal.

2. Scientific studies have proven that sea turtles show a feeding preference for brightly colored balloons over other items such as clear plastic - and they do not pass through the digestive tract of a turtle in the normal time but have been proven to accumulate and may take up to four months to pass through (normal time is ~ 10 days).

3. Releasing balloons into the air is the same as littering. The balloon industry claims balloons explode in many tiny harmless fragments when they reach a certain altitude, but the over 32,000 balloons picked up on beaches during a 1999 cleanup would indicate otherwise - many return to earth intact.

4. Many states (including Florida) and municipalities have banned balloon launches. Launches are widely regarded by many in the general public as very harmful to the environment and to marine animals. Promoting a balloon launch as part of their event will only attract negative publicity to an otherwise honorable cause."

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