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How a Florida balloon release ban could curb plastic pollution

Balloons float at  Publix grocery store in Florida. (Catherine Welch/Here & Now)
Balloons float at Publix grocery store in Florida. (Catherine Welch/Here & Now)

Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign a bill making Florida one of several states where it’s illegal torelease balloons.

The bill easily passed with bipartisan support in the state legislature because of concerns over plastic pollution. Balloons can bioaccumulate in the environment and contribute to the growing problem of microplastics, says  Jon Paul “J.P.” Brooker, program director of Florida conservation at the Ocean Conservancy.

“What goes up must come down,” Brooker says. “These balloons end up in our ocean, in our coastal areas, on our beaches, and that’s really impactful to not just our wildlife, but also ultimately our human health.”

6 questions with Jon Paul ‘J.P.’ Brooker

Is it true that birds will eat balloons?

“That is true, and Ocean Conservancy has recently done a review of science publications and have found that nearly one in three seabirds that eat even a single piece of a balloon is going to die due to that balloon ingestion.”

Questions remain about how police will enforce this law. Offenders will get a ticket. Do you think that’s enough? 

“I think we’re not gonna see police roaming the beaches handing out tickets to folks. But I think it gives us a hook for enforcement that we didn’t previously have. Before, if police saw people releasing balloons, there wasn’t a lot they could do about it, but now there is something they can do about it.

“But I think we’re also really interested in it from a public outreach and education perspective. We now have a tool that we can show the public why it’s wrong to release balloons and that it is, you know, a findable offense.”

Why do you think this effort got so much bipartisan support when that’s so hard to come by on almost any issue, let alone environmental legislation?

“I think in Florida, we’re seeing increasingly that environmental issues really aren’t partisan. It doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or progressive. We really care about our wildlife in Florida and it’s the driver of a strong Floridian economy.

“Nobody wants to come to Florida if the beaches are trashed. And it’s not a red or blue issue, it’s a Floridian issue. And I think Floridians are uniting to care, especially as we’re seeing, you know, a critical mass of environmental issues in Florida really coming to a head.”

So the balloons make landfall in the ocean and then wash up on the beaches?

“Well, they can land in the ocean and wash up on the beaches. They can land on the beaches. We also see them landing inland. And, you know, we got support from the Cattlemen’s Association, the ranchers who are seeing balloons landing in their pastures and are impacting their cattle. So there’s really all kinds of places where balloons can end up and have negative impacts on the environment and on the economy.”

How effective is banning individual products like balloons or plastic straws in reducing pollution?

“We should be looking at moving towards a circular economy where we’re moving away from the use of virgin plastics and towards a complete recycle and reuse system. You know, our systems are leaky and trash can make its way into the environment from all manner of sources, whether it’s us releasing balloons or whether it’s just our dump truck, you know, inadvertently letting trash go.

“So I think that we need to be thinking about this way more holistically, but until we’re able to implement those circular systems. These types of bands are very effective and are very effective in getting the public’s insight and interest on the issue.”

Are there alternatives for people wanting to release balloons?

“Definitely. I mean, we would encourage folks to plant a tree. You know, another thing that we see people doing and people should consider doing is scattering flower petals or flowers, you know, organic stuff like that is not really so impactful to the environment and can be a really beautiful way to memorialize someone or commemorate an event.”

Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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