The mass release of balloons at weddings, funerals, business openings and other celebrations could soon be illegal.
Legislation outlawing the intentional release of air or helium-filled balloons will be considered at a State Senate hearing in Dover on Wednesday this week. The bill, SB 208, would amend state code pertaining littering, enacting fines up to $350 and requiring up to 25 hours of community service for violators.
Senator Stephanie Hansen, an environmental attorney, said the purpose of the measure is to reduce the adverse impacts latex balloons have on the environment and wildlife. Hansen said that over 700 spent balloons were collected in just a few hours during the 2018 “Coastal Cleanup” community event and said conservation and marine wildlife advocates were fully behind the measure.
Hansen began drafting the bill last year and introduced it with bi-partisan support across both legislative chambers.
“The impact of balloons on marine life is heartbreaking and we continue to read about it. It’s hard to pick up a paper and read about the latest animal on the coastline having X [sic] pieces of plastic in its intestines which lead to its death,” said Hansen.
“The hope is that it [the legislation] would lead to a cleaner coastline and the death of fewer animals.”
The Coastal Cleanup statistics show a range of 400 to 1,200 balloons were collected each year on Delaware’s beaches at the September event over a ten-year period.
SB 208 would make the intentional release of one or more balloons a civil violation, with fines ranging from $25 for the release of 1 balloon into the air up to $350 for a second offense of a mass release of balloons and up to 25 hours of community service for multiple infractions.
Balloons released for scientific or meteorological purposes, hot air balloons recovered after launching, balloons released and remaining indoors and balloons unintentionally released would all be exempt from the new law.
A section of the legislation requires businesses that sell the inflatable balloons to post notice advising consumers of the new law. Hansen calls that “an incredibly important part of the legislation.”
The manager of Party City in Elsmere says he wasn’t aware of the proposed legislation but that if it passes, his store won’t skip a beat. He says few to no customers ask for large numbers of helium balloons for mass release, and the party business already encourages people to be environmentally conscious. “We’ve had our own sign up for more than two years right here in the balloon section asking people to be responsible with helium balloons,” he said.
Among other suggestions, their sign asks consumers to “NOT release balloons into the air… and to help keep balloons out of waterways and powerlines.”
New Castle County Councilperson Dee Durham heads the nonprofit Plastic Free Delaware which is an advocate of the legislation. Durham and Hansen point to efforts in nine other states and localities that have outlawed the release of balloons including Virginia, California, Florida and Maryland. Both acknowledge the legislation is as much about raising awareness as it is about enforcement.
“We took a look at how other states were setting the bar,” said Hansen. “There were two big things we were looking at — the number of balloons [released] and and the level of the penalty.”
“Like most people, I grew up releasing balloons and not really thinking about it,” said Durham. “But balloon releases are littering, because they end up in our ocean, they blight our beaches and trees, and they can kill or injure birds and domestic animals. Birds get tied up with the strings and they can’t fly. Even domestic animals can eat balloons and choke on them.”
Durham also says that the dire short supply of helium, which comes from fracking and extractive industries, is another reason consumers should think twice about releasing even one balloon into the air. Party City limits the purchase of its helium-filled balloons to 12, for just this reason.
Hansen says the legislation is not targeting balloon displays like wedding arches and balloon sculptures at corporate events and children’s birthday parties – which would surely have parents concerned about the risk of errant releases.
“Enforcement will be a challenge”
The bill comes on the heels of several other environment-related proposals being considered by lawmakers in Dover, including the elimination of plastic and paper shopping bags.
“We have to continue to advance social and environmental awareness,” says Hansen. “The vast majority of people believe we can do more with little cost and change of behavior. We’ve been trying to raise awareness for a number of years. Legislation is the most visible step – when you change a law, you get more attention.”