Balloon debris on a beach. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration photo

When Ellen Bunker of Matinicus Island is lobstering, she typically finds balloons floating in the ocean, sometimes one or two groups of them all tied together.

“Balloons are one of the most common items of trash I see” each day in the Gulf of Maine, Bunker told a legislative committee this week.

A bunch of balloons littering a beach. Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Bunker is one of many Mainers who urged the Environment and Natural Resources Committee to support bills that would add balloons to anti-littering laws and ban the intentional release outdoors of balloons except for meteorological or scientific reasons. Hot-air balloons for people to ride in would still be allowed.

A number of states, including California, Connecticut and Virginia, have cracked down on the release of latex balloons.

Maine Audubon’s Allison Briggs told the panel the balloons pose a risk to wildlife, especially seabirds.

A study published in 2015 by Marine Policy found that only plastic bags and fishing lines pose a greater risk to marine wildlife than balloons. They are often eaten but another peril, researchers learned, are the ribbons and strings tied to balloons that can snag birds and other creatures.

Ken Ross of Robbinston said that “for decades it has been recognized that released balloons can fall in waterways and be swallowed by birds, mammals, turtles and other creatures, often causing death.

“Maine’s wildlife, economy and quality of life require a healthy environment, including protection of the creatures in question,” he said. The “release of balloons is unnecessary and detrimental to a healthy natural environment.”

“Balloons are regularly released into the environment,” Briggs said, “either in celebration or memory, or deliberately abandoned. Few people make the connection that the balloon they release into the air will later return to earth, despoiling our environment.”

In short, what goes up, must come down.

State Sen. Heather Sanborn, a Portland Democrat, said lawmakers need to endorse the “common-sense bill” to call balloons trash in order “to protect our beautiful state from this particularly curious form of intentional plastic litter that pollutes our waterways and harms our wildlife.”

“Intentional celebratory balloon releases are a relic of the past,” Sanborn said. “Our littering statute should simply put an end to them once and for all.”

Jennifer Kennedy, executive director of the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, said the New Hampshire-based nonprofit in 2019 found 326 balloons on the shoreline between York and Salisbury, Massachusetts.

“Balloon litter is ubiquitous in public spaces and the marine environment,” she said. “And it is a wholly unnecessary form of litter.”

Rep. Lydia Blume, a Democrat from York Beach, said she introduced a measure to bar the intentional release of balloons despite the “groans and eye rolls” a similar effort witnessed during the last legislative session.

“Lest the committee conclude that this is just the latest case of joyless, regulation-happy politicians out to ruin children’s fun and extinguish freedom’s light in the process,” Blume said, “please consider that this is an actual public policy problem that no one else is going to solve for us.”

“Balloons are in fact killing a lot of animals and are damaging some of the natural ecosystems Mainers depend on for food and their livelihoods,” she said.

“We can and should look at this bill as an opportunity for Maine to join the other states and cities that have enacted similar measures to solve a genuine problem and save a lot of wildlife while we are at it,” Blume said.

She told colleagues that the bill “doesn’t ban anything, but it reminds us to be careful, and prods us to think twice before we do something that could harm the world around us.”

Rebecca Waddell of Waldoboro said she is an avid kayaker who often winds up picking up balloons among the litter floating on Damariscotta Lake.

“It is past time for this kind of activity to stop,” she said. “I would love to have people held accountable for this intentional harm to the environment.”

The committee will discuss the two bills in the coming weeks.


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