I think by this point we’ve come to understand that we need to do a better job of managing our use of products made of plastic and its various close cousins. Unfortunately, that “better job” is frequently translated to an immediate and total ban on the use of many things we take for granted. Straws are frequently cited as the biggest culprit, but efforts to replace them have led us down some strange paths, leading to one person dying after being impaled on a metal straw.
But straws aren’t the only target for bans. This article from Route Fifty describes a growing trend towards local bans of balloons. Most of them aren’t actually plastic, but mylar is pretty much as bad and it takes hundreds, if not thousands of years to biodegrade. So it’s time to ban the balloons, as is now being considered in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland.
The result, a proposed county-wide ban on most balloon releases, debuted before the county commissioners last week. The bill, scheduled for a public hearing Aug. 13, would make it illegal for people to intentionally release balloons in Queen Anne’s County unless they’re either biodegradable or photodegradable. Violators would be guilty of a civil infraction and subject to a maximum $250 fine. The ban would not apply to balloons released by the government, weather balloons, hot air balloons recovered after launch, or unintentional balloon releases.
“We’re not trying to create a situation where some kid who lets go of their balloon at the carnival is jumped by the police,” Corchiarino said. “If you want to get balloons for your kid’s birthday party, or you’re getting married and want to have balloons on the chair, go ahead and do it. Just dispose of them responsibly when you’re done.”
This isn’t the first time the subject has come up. Last year, Clemson University ended its tradition of releasing thousands of helium balloons before a big game.
I remain on the fence about some aspects of this debate. As a general rule, I tend to agree with the spokesperson for The Balloon Council (yes… that’s really a thing) who says that they prefer education to legislation, but you definitely can’t educate everyone. Massive releases of helium balloons are pretty stupid when you stop to think about it. (Or even just lots of smaller releases.) If you do that, you already know that you have no way to recover them and they’re going to come down someplace, eventually popping and leaving more piles of synthetic material that won’t biodegrade.
I see people suggesting latex balloons as a replacement and describing them as biodegradable. But a little research shows that they still take anywhere from six months to four years before they break down. Far better than centuries to be sure, but they still hang around for a long time. So what’s the answer? Balloons filled with air instead of helium are easier to track down, pop and dispose of, but you still wind up with a ton of mylar in a landfill. (Or, worse, in the ocean being swallowed by fish.) Perhaps air-filled latex balloons?
One suggestion I saw while researching this question was the use of paper “sky lanterns” (also sometimes referred to as Chinese paper lanterns). But I don’t know if replacing the threat of mylar in the ocean with a fire that you send up in the sky to land who knows where is much of an improvement. This is particularly true for California.
I don’t know if I have a good solution for this one, though having Big Brother ban everything is rarely a good answer. Perhaps we could all just agree to use fewer balloons, not use as much helium and steer toward the more biodegradable ones. In any event, I just wanted to toss this out there for consideration.