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Issues Of The Environment: UM Student Tracks Balloon Debris, Warns Of Ecological Consequences

Nov 6, 2019

Lara O'Brien

Balloons are typically associated with any celebration, whether it's birthdays, weddings, and so forth.  Yet, releasing balloons into the air can have serious consequences for the environment and wildlife.  University of Michigan graduate student Lara O'Brien is collecting data and researching the impacts and shares her findings with WEMU's David Fair in this week's "Issues of the Environment."


Overview

  • Lara O'Brien, a University of Michigan researcher and master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, has created an interactive online tool to track balloon litter.
  • Balloons released into the sky eventually come down, causing problems in the environment and for wildlife.
  • Mylar (“foil”) balloons are not biodegradable, and latex balloons take years to break down.  Marine birds are prone to dying from ingesting both types of balloons, which get stuck and block the digestive tract.  According to Ballloonsblow.org, cows, dogs, sheep, tortoises, birds, and other animals have also been hurt or killed by balloons.  The animal is usually killed from the balloon blocking its digestive tract, leaving them unable to take in any more nutrients.  It slowly starves to death.  The animals can also become entangled in the balloon and its ribbon making the animal unable to move or eat.
  • Lara suggests alternatives to a balloon release, including blowing bubbles, planting a tree, spreading native wildflower seeds, lighting candles or eco-friendly luminaries, or flying a kite.  She requests that citizens report the locations of balloon debris using her tool: Balloon Debris website

Additional Resources: 

Why Balloons are Problematic

Balloon are Especially Risky for Marine Birds

Lara’s Research and Tracking Tool

To make it easier to access and share the survey,  Lara O'Brien created the website, balloondebris.org, which has a link to the web survey, an interactive map of the balloon debris sightings, photos, eco-friendly alternatives, and more information on how the public can get involved.  Since the beginning of June, when she began the survey, research participants have found almost 1,500 pieces of balloon debris around the Great Lakes, including Isle Royale and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.  One volunteer found 85 different balloons and pieces of balloon debris in a single morning along a two-mile stretch of beach at the Indiana Dunes State Park. 

After she graduated [undergrad], O'Brien became increasingly involved in wildlife conservation and volunteered at a wildlife rehab in Kansas.  There she learned more about native birds and wildlife and how they are also impacted by climate change and plastic pollution.  She decided to enroll at the University of Michigan and SEAS to continue my studies and learn more about the science and data behind climate change and conservation as well as the latest developments in GIS and remote sensing technologies.  She hopes to successfully combine qualitative, quantitative, and geospatial methods to help raise awareness about climate change and plastic pollution, influence environmental policy, and help communities protect and conserve their environment and natural resources. 

O'Brien decided to pursue balloon debris research, because, for years, she has been horrified when groups would gather for graduations, weddings, memorials, and other events, and release balloons as part of the celebration. She is sure these groups have good intentions behind their actions, however, every single one of the balloons they release eventually ends up as litter polluting oceans, lakes, rivers, forests, and other natural areas.  Mylar balloons, made from nylon with a metallic coating, will never biodegrade.  While some claim that latex balloons are biodegradable, they still take years to break down. These balloons get entangled in trees and wrap around power lines, causing outages. 

Beyond polluting the environment, these balloons also endanger wildlife.  According to a recent study out of the University of Tasmania, balloon debris is the deadliest form of marine plastic for seabirds and other wildlife as many are injured or killed from ingesting the debris and/or becoming entangled in the long ribbons or strings.

Popped latex balloons are also brightly colored, float on the surface of the water, resemble jellyfish or squid, and actually give off a chemical smell similar to prey.  So, on every level, latex balloon debris attracts seabirds, turtles, and other wildlife, which will then try to consume them.  Latex balloons are also made of a soft, malleable material that easily conforms to the stomach and digestive tracts of birds and other wildlife, leading to suffocation, starvation, and death.

It is not just marine seabirds and wildlife that are affected.  There have been numerous reports of horses, cattle, and other livestock that have been injured or killed from either ingesting the debris, getting entangled in the ribbons, or running into barbed wire fences after being spooked by the falling litter. 

O'Brien's hope is that by engaging and participating in this citizen science research, more people will become aware of the impact balloons and balloon releases have on the environment and wildlife and that this will lead to changes in behavior and changes in policy.  Balloon pollution is also specific and recognizable. Plastic pollution and marine debris are such a huge, overwhelming problems, but focusing on balloons makes it far easier to comprehend.  Balloon debris is also something that can be solved relatively easily. With a little awareness, people can change their behavior, deciding not to release balloons and, instead, start using eco-friendly alternatives.

A few years ago, O'Brien came across Balloons Blow, a non-profit in Florida.  They have done a lot to raise awareness about the harmful impacts of balloon releases.  Their website, balloonsblow.org, also lists the existing balloon release laws around the nation. California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia have passed laws prohibiting the release of balloons, however,she noticed that Michigan, nor any of the states around the Great Lakes, had introduced balloon release bans. 

O'Brien's goal when she first created the survey was to gather data around the Ann Arbor and Detroit area to help raise awareness and, hopefully, persuade the University of Michigan to officially ban balloon releases on campus.  Her thinking was that if the University banned balloons, this would provide a strong example to state lawmakers to introduce and pass balloon release bans.  However, when she started sharing the survey this past June, O'Brien was surprised at how quickly it was picked up and shared, not just in Ann Arbor and Detroit, but across the entire region.  It showed just how much people care about the Great Lakes and realize that plastic pollution and balloon debris are issues that need to be addressed. People are ready for action to be taken.  This shifted my goal to take this issue beyond just Ann Arbor and focus on making changes at the state and regional level. 

O'Brien had never actually been to Michigan prior to moving here last fall to start graduate school.  Over the past year, she has had a chance to travel to up north on a couple of occasions.  Each time she sees Lake Michigan, O'Brien is amazed and awed at its immense size, power, and beauty and she wants to do everything she can to help to protect and preserve the Great Lakes.  Her hope in using this survey and collecting this data is to supplement the data already gathered by the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup Organization.  Between 2016-2018, the Alliance for the Great Lakes recorded over 18,000 balloons in the region.  Between 2008 and 2016, the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup recorded almost 300,000 balloons found along U.S. beaches. Having the ability to map the locations of balloon debris also helps people to better visualize just how large spread and prevalent this problem actually is.  Sharing this research and its results has already prompted several state representatives to take action and begin drafting balloon release ban legislation for the state of Michigan and Illinois.  Hopefully, this will spur other states to do the same. 

Awareness is growing, but it is still common for people to release balloons as a way to celebrate an event or remember a lost loved one.  This includes the Indianapolis 500, where, since 1947, they release 40,000 balloons to start the race.  This is the largest balloon release that still occurs in this country. Once the balloons are out of sight, however, they are out of mind.  Most don't consider the fact that this simple, brief action has a long-term negative impact on the environment and wildlife.  Hopefully, this research and articles like yours will spread awareness. (Source: E-mail from O'Brien)

About Lara O'Brien

O'Brien is a second-year master’s student in the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) and is studying both Environmental Informatics and Conservation Ecology with a focus on climate change, plastic pollution, wildlife conservation, and natural resource management.  Researching the environmental impact of balloon debris in the Great Lakes, she recently created a web survey that can be used to record the date, location, condition, and photo of any balloon debris found.  This citizen science study recently gained regional, national, and international media attention and was featured by Detroit Free Press, Michigan Public Radio, USA Today, The Associated Press, CBC, Alliance for the Great Lakes, FLOW (For the Love of Water), and others. 

She is originally from Kansas City and has always been interested in the environment and how people view and interact with the natural world.  She received a B.A. in Anthropology and a minor in Geography from the University of Missouri. She also has an M.A. degree in Geography from the University of Kansas (KU).  At KU, she used qualitative research and in-depth interviews to focus on the effects of climate change and sea level rise on low-lying island nations in the Pacific, specifically the Republic of Kiribati.  She also examined how the indigenous communities there are adapting to current and future environmental changes.  When she traveled to some of these small, remote islands, she was able to talk with members of the local villages and see the direct impacts of climate change.  She was also shocked at the incredible amount of plastic littering the beaches and lagoons and saw that plastic pollution was another huge environmental challenge for the islands. (Source: E-mail from O'Brien)

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu