Will Jones was 6 and on a whale watch off the Maine coast when he locked eyes with a humpback whale. That intense interaction was broken moments later when he saw a bouquet of deflated balloons floating in the water where the whale was feeding.

“I realized I had let balloons go myself,” said Jones, now 18. “My happy moment with the whale suddenly turned into guilt and I knew I had to make amends somehow.”

For the past 12 years, Jones has spoken to hundreds of Maine children about the dangers balloons pose to wildlife, lobbied state lawmakers to support a bill to stop mass balloon releases, and helped craft a local ordinance designed to reduce the number of balloons that end up discarded in the water and woods of Maine.

Efforts by Jones and others to ban balloon releases statewide died, for now, on the floor of the Maine Senate last month after getting support in the House. Backers plan to build support and bring the idea back.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Kennebunk residents will vote on a municipal ordinance prohibiting intentional balloon releases, displaying balloons outside and using balloons in any town-owned facility. If the ordinance is approved, Kennebunk will become the second town in Maine to ban balloon releases.

The Kennebunk vote comes at a time of growing national concern about the impact of discarded balloons on wildlife that ingest the balloons or become entangled by them. Balloon launches are already restricted in California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia. States considering similar legislation include Arizona, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

The issue of mass balloon releases was thrust into the national spotlight recently after tens of thousands of balloons were released at the Indy 500, a tradition that dates back to the 1940s.

“Balloon releases happen all the time in Maine,” said Sarah Lakeman of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It’s kind of mind-boggling because it’s a mass littering event with lots of public participation. People who generally don’t litter are littering.”

A balloon rests at the bottom of a saltwater-filled jar. Will Jones found the balloon on Mother’s Beach six years ago and it still has not started to degrade. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Advocates for restrictions on balloon releases say it’s a common-sense approach to reducing the number of balloons that end up in the ocean, where sea turtles, whales and birds mistake them for food. Balloons are the most-recorded type of trash found floating in the Jeffrey’s Ledge Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Maine, and the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation spotted 2,919 balloons during whale watch trips in the Gulf of Maine between 2012 and 2017.

The Sea Turtle Foundation estimates that 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million seabirds die every year from ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris, including balloons that obstruct stomachs.

The balloon industry has long maintained that many balloons are biodegradable and has lobbied against balloon restrictions – including a 1991 proposal in Maine. The Balloon Council, an industry group representing retailers, distributors and manufacturers, now supports educational efforts to discourage people from releasing balloons into the air, but again opposed legislative action in the Maine Legislature this year.

EARLIER EFFORT FAILED

The Maine Legislature first considered a bill aimed at reducing litter from balloons back in 1991. The legislation – inspired by an outcry from midcoast middle schoolers who learned balloons were found in the stomach of a dead whale – was rejected following pressure from the balloon industry.

At the time, the balloon industry fought against regulating balloon releases, citing a study that said balloons are biodegradable. Over the past 25 years, the position of the balloon industry has changed and the Balloon Council now focuses on educating consumers about the proper use of balloons to reduce waste and discouraging people from intentionally releasing them.

“(The Balloon Council) believes in education over legislation,” Lorna O’Hara, executive director of the council, wrote to the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources in March. “Teaching people what they should and shouldn’t do when using balloons, always weighting and never intentionally releasing balloons into the air and disposing of them properly after a celebration, is critical.”

After Maine rejected the first attempt at restricting balloon releases in 1991, the issue wasn’t raised again in the Legislature until this year, when Rep. Michael Devin, D-Newcastle, sponsored L.D. 937. Devin, who is on medical leave from his work in the Legislature, submitted written testimony in support of the bill, which sought to reclassify balloons as litter.

“We live in a state that depends economically on having a healthy coastline and pristine wilderness,” he wrote. “The lobster industry alone generates more than $1 billion in economic activity. L.D. 937 would help us improve the health of our food chain, save lives and help us along on our journey away from plastics.”

Will Jones, a Kennebunk High School senior, holds a balloon he found on Mother’s Beach six years ago that still has not started to degrade. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

The bill would have defined balloons as litter, prohibiting anyone from intentionally disposing of them and subjecting people to fines for intentionally releasing multiple balloons. In its original version, the bill also would have required retailers selling balloons to register with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and display information about the dangers of balloons, but the bill was amended by the committee to remove those provisions after concerns were raised by the DEP, Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association and the Retail Association of Maine.

The groups that testified in opposition to the bill said it would create an added layer of complexity for retailers and impose regulatory burdens on the DEP. Dan Riley, a Maine attorney, testified against the bill on behalf of the Balloon Council and said the original version of the bill would have made Maine the only state to require a balloon seller to register with the state and display signs about balloons.

The bill was widely supported in testimony to the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Eliza Donoghue, a senior policy and advocacy specialist for Maine Audubon, told the committee that plastic bags, bottle caps and food service containers are widely recognized as litter.

“Balloons, however, though equally or more harmful to wildlife, are not widely recognized as litter,” she testified. “Balloons are regularly released into the environment in celebration, memory or they are abandoned. Few people make the connection that the balloon they release into the air will return to earth, despoiling our environment.”

Donoghue told the committee that balloon litter is “not just a coastal problem” and described how an employee at the Maine Audubon’s Scarborough Marsh site found a balloon in the marsh that was printed with the name of a school well over 100 miles away in Bangor.

Erin Pelletier, executive director of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, testified that balloons are a common type of litter found by lobstermen who fish along the coast of Maine. Balloons floating in the water look like buoys, get tangled in motors and propellers and hurt wildlife, she said. Metallic balloons can interfere with radar systems.

“Hardworking lobstermen are cleaning up ocean balloon litter out of the kindness of their hearts,” she said. “They deserve help in eliminating this source of ocean pollution.”

The bill left the committee with some bipartisan support and passed through the House with majority support. It failed to gain support in the Senate, where it was voted down on May 2.

Sen. Brownie Carson, a Democrat from Harpswell, urged senators to define balloons as litter in an effort to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in waterways.

“We will hear, I’m sure, that we should not overreach, that we should not allow ourselves to be accused of interfering with kids’ birthday parties. This is not what this bill is about,” he told his fellow senators. “What we are trying to do is keep the plague of plastics – including balloons that are intentionally released, not a child who accidentally releases a balloon at a party – from getting into marine mammals and becoming litter.”

No one in the Senate spoke against the bill, although Sen. Scott Cyrway, a Republican from Albion, did stand to ask a single question: “Doesn’t littering already cover that?”

No one answered his question and there was no debate before the 23-12 vote against the bill. Senators from both parties voted against the measure.

Had the bill passed, it would have added balloons to a long list of specific items listed as being covered by Maine’s anti-littering law, along with things like bottles, crockery and old automobiles.

Lakeman, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that vote was disappointing, but she believes the issue will come up again in Augusta. Local ordinances like the one passed in March in Unity and the one being considered in Kennebunk could provide momentum for the issue, as happened with bills banning plastic bags and polystyrene, she said.

SUPPORT IN KENNEBUNK

Jones, a Kennebunk High School senior, first approached Kennebunk officials two years ago to ask them to reconsider using balloons during the annual May Day celebration. Those conversations led to nearly two years of work with town committees to develop the balloon ordinance.

Will Jones holds a jar containing the balloon he found on Mother’s Beach six years ago. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Kennebunk Board of Selectmen voted in April to send the proposed ordinance to voters in June and to include a note on the ballot that the board supports the ordinance.

The ordinance would prohibit anyone from knowingly or intentionally releasing balloons at any outdoor celebration, promotional activity, sporting or other event or in any public building. It would also prohibit anyone from displaying balloons outside or from using balloons in any public building or facility owned or leased by the town.

The ordinance does not apply to balloons used for scientific or meteorological purposes, hot air balloons that are recovered after launching, or balloons that are used indoors only in a privately owned building.

No one spoke against the proposed ordinance during a public hearing on April 9.

Regardless of what happens with Tuesday’s vote, Jones said he will continue to educate people about the concerns around balloons and wildlife. When he speaks at schools, libraries or other groups, he always brings with him a jar that contains saltwater and a balloon he found on Mother’s Beach on Valentine’s Day 2013. The latex balloon has not changed during the past six years, he said, which shows they are not biodegradable.

Jones’ advocacy has already led to some changes in Kennebunk. Last year, the town for the first time used ribbons instead of balloons at the May Day celebration. Local real estate agents and businesses have started using pinwheels and ribbons to draw attention to signs instead of balloons. And dozens of local children have told Jones they will ask their parents not to use balloons at their birthday parties.

“After speaking with hundreds of kids in Kennebunk, I can say with conviction that no child believes a balloon is worth the life of a whale or a bird or a sea turtle,” Jones said. “Actually, children are the first to reject balloons to save marine animals and have written me dozens of letters to say so.”


Comments are not available on this story.