NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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Addressing A Rising Concern: Balloon Debris


By: Leah Henry

People intentionally release balloons into the environment to celebrate events and commemorate special occasions. Balloon debris often ends up in streams, rivers, and the ocean, where marine animals can ingest the balloons or become entangled by their attachments, causing injury and even death.

Although many people make the connection that when balloons go up they eventually come back down to Earth, others—even those who would never consider throwing a newspaper or candy wrapper on the ground—will release balloons accidentally or participate in a mass release of balloons without considering the end results.

To address this problem, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality partners with the NOAA Marine Debris Program on, A Rising Concern: Reducing Balloon Debris through Social Marketing, a Prevention through Education and Outreach project to reduce balloon litter in Virginia.

Learn more about this effort on the MDP website.

A Juvenile Sea Turtle Ingests Balloon Debris (Photo Credit: Blair Witherington FWC)

A Juvenile Sea Turtle Ingests Balloon Debris (Photo Credit: Blair Witherington FWC)

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

5 thoughts on “Addressing A Rising Concern: Balloon Debris

  1. Balloon are a huge environmental disaster for sea life. People just don’t think about this in terms of how balloons eventually end up in the ocean not to mention the ribbons attached wind themselves around kelp and the feet of birds. I literally ran up to a funeral party begging them not to release a huge bouquet of balloons at the beach one day. I respectfully let them know what would eventually happen with the balloons. Not an honorable way to commemorate a loved one. They didn’t take it that well at first but didn’t release the balloons. This is a subject that needs to be talked about.

  2. Thank You for addressing this problem. I adore Sea Turtles and wish the world would Stop releasing their flying garbage.

  3. Another huge problem is bottle caps from plastic bottles, they kill thousands of birds yearly. I save the caps but do not know where to recycle them…

  4. Balloons are not actually the problem in a balloon release. Latex is biodegradable. and organic material. When released usually rise until they freeze and burst into small spaghetti like pieces. Even when consumed in this state, they are easily past. The problem is the ribbon or string that is attached to the balloons. A hand tied latex balloon released without a string does not cause a concern. Look in the above picture. lots of plastic, cigarette butts string ,and a whole lot of fishing line and plastic ribbons… but… no balloons. Plastic and especially fishing lines and string is a problem… Let’s educate the public on how to responsibly release balloons into the environment and at the same time not hurt the balloon industry.
    Full disclosure: I work with balloons and also love the environment.
    The industry has done a lot of research on this topic. Please understand that latex is not a rising concern…it’s fishing lines, ribbons and plastics that are the culprits. With education on responsible (no plastic ribbon) balloon releases, we can all make a positive change.

    • Thank you for your comment and for your interest in making sure balloons are not harming our environment. Although the attachments to balloons (such as plastic strings) can definitely substantially increase the harm to our marine wildlife, balloons themselves can have a pretty serious impact as well. Pieces of balloons and sometimes whole balloons (that deflate before reaching the heights needed to freeze) do often find their way into our waterways once released into the environment. Although latex is biodegradable, this decomposition takes place over many years and does not occur the same way in water as it does on land. For this reason, balloons often end up being ingested by wildlife, where they can cause a feeling of being full (even though the animal doesn’t get any nutritional value), or create a blockage within the gut, with either scenario resulting in anything from discomfort to sickness or death. As you pointed out, it is important to educate people so that if they are using balloons, they do so in a responsible manner, making sure they don’t end up in our environment. Many states have now enacted laws against mass balloon releases, in order to reduce this form of littering as much as possible. Although other debris types are definitely a concern as well, it is important to reduce our contribution to all types of marine debris.

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