NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

Balloons and the Mid-Atlantic


Balloons are a type of marine debris that many people don’t think about. Often used for celebrations or to commemorate special events, balloons are frequently intentionally or accidentally released into the environment. Unfortunately, once they go up, they must also come down; balloons that are released into the air don’t just go away, they either get snagged on something such as tree branches or electrical wires, deflate and make their way back down, or rise until they pop and fall back to Earth where they can create a lot of problems. Balloon debris can be ingested by animals, many of which easily mistake it for real food, and can entangle wildlife, especially balloons with attached ribbons. Balloon debris can even have an economic impact on communities, contributing to dirty beaches which drive away tourists, or causing power outages from mylar balloons covered in metallic paint and their ribbons tangling in power lines.

Balloon debris is a national issue and unfortunately, the Mid-Atlantic is not immune. Over a period of five years (2010-2014), 4,916 pieces of balloon litter were found in Virginia by volunteers participating in the International Coastal Cleanup, with over 3,000 of those pieces found on ocean beaches. In 2014, 236 volunteers found over 900 balloons in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia in a three-hour period. Recent surveys of remote islands on Virginia’s Eastern Shore documented up to 40 balloons per mile of beach. These statistics suggest that this Mid-Atlantic area is appropriate to research the balloon debris issue and to create an education and outreach program that could then be used in other states. So the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, with funding support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is doing just that. They’re exploring the issue of intentionally-released balloons and targeting that behavior through a social marketing campaign.

Latex balloon on the ground.

With efforts such as those by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, we hope that we will start to see less balloon debris in our environment. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

So what can you do to help reduce balloon debris in the Mid-Atlantic and throughout the country? Consider using alternate decorations at your next celebration such as paper streamers or fabric flags. Rather than giving your child a helium balloon on a string, fill it with air and attach it to a stick—they still get the feeling of it floating above their heads without the risk of losing it into the environment. Most importantly, don’t intentionally release balloons into the air. With increased awareness about the issue, we can all work to reduce this very preventable form of marine debris in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond.

A person holding balloon debris that says "Happy Birthday!"

Working together, let’s reduce this very preventable form of marine debris! (Photo Credit: NOAA)

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.

3 thoughts on “Balloons and the Mid-Atlantic

  1. What about upper-air observations with weather balloons ? Have you guys at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) planned to reduce their impact ? I know that they are a rather small proportions of marine debris and that upper-air in situ observations are essential to satellite calibration, data assimilation and numerical weather predictions, but parents can alse argue that their child’s birthday balloons are vital too …

    • Hi Alex,
      Apologies for a delayed response, we wanted to look further into this issue. Similar to party balloons, weather balloons can end up as marine debris. Unfortunately, there are currently few alternative options for gathering the types of data that weather balloons provide and which, as you noted, we rely on. However, their role in adding to marine debris is definitely something that NOAA does consider. Luckily, weather balloons are an extremely small percentage of the total marine debris influx as well as the total balloon debris influx. By making people aware (both those involved in the weather industry as well as the average consumer), then we can all work to make the best choices we can for our environment.

  2. I did not even think of the environmental impacts balloons have caused to our oceans, marine species, and the overall environment. Now more than ever, humans are aware of what and how we pollute, along with the negative, anthropogenic impact of the earth. Our attention has been focused on climate change and environmental disasters, but I believe this issue needs to gain awareness. This blog shows from 2010-2014, 4,916 pieces of balloon litter were found in just Virginia. In the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, volunteers found over 900 balloons in a three-hour period. These statistics show the negative and evident impact balloon litter causes. I agree that with increased awareness of this issue, we can help keep oceans clean, save many marine and aquatic organisms, and have cleaner beaches for recreation and economic benefits!

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