NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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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)


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Balloon Marine Debris on the Washington Coast

By: Nir Barnea, Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator, and Emma Tonge, Intern, with the NOAA Marine Debris Program

 Many thanks go out to Russ Lewis, Heidi Pedersen, and Dana Wu for the balloon reports.

I was on a phone interview with Glenn Farley, a reporter with King 5 TV in Seattle who was preparing a report on balloons that become marine debris, when he asked, “So, how many balloons have been found along the Washington coast?” Unfortunately, I didn’t have an answer for him. “I find balloons occasionally during marine debris cleanups, and I know that others do too, but I don’t have a number for you,” I told him. Obviously, this was one of those situations where “I’ll get back to you later” was in order.

His question made me curious, and I wanted to have a better idea of the scale of this problem. How many balloons? What type? How do we get this information? It was clear that a full scale, scientific study on the number of balloons arriving on the Washington coast would take much time and effort. But, could we possibly get current anecdotal information to give us an idea of how many balloons are found?

Russ Lewis with two balloons he found on the Washington coast.

Russ Lewis with two balloons he found on the Washington coast. (Photo Credit: Russ Lewis)

We turned to our partners who clean up or survey for marine debris along the Washington coast, and they graciously agreed to help. Heidi Pedersen, with the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, worked regularly with volunteers to conduct shoreline surveys and reported balloons found during their May 2012 to February 2015 monthly surveys of several sites. Dana Wu, with the Student Conservation Association, coordinated cleanups at remote beaches along the Olympic National Park and provided a couple of reports. Russ Lewis, a retired scientist with the National Forest Service and a dedicated volunteer who cleans up marine debris on a nearly daily basis along the north part of the Long Beach Peninsula, provided detailed reports, photos, and observations of the balloons he found.

A year has passed since we first asked for balloon reports and we now have some information and a few observations to share (keeping in mind the big caveat that this was not a scientific study).

A map depicting balloon marine debris reported to the Marine Debris Program.

A map depicting balloon marine debris reported to the Marine Debris Program. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

A total of 69 balloons were reported to us. Obviously, the cleanups and surveys were done over a tiny fraction of the entire coast, and the number of balloons over the whole coast is likely many times that number. Of the 40 balloons Russ reported, 31 were made of Mylar. This is discouraging, as despite their one-time use, Mylar balloons take a long time to degrade. These balloons were more likely than other balloon types to be found individually and still partially inflated. Rubber balloons, another prevalent balloon type, were more likely to be found deflated or shredded, and often tied together in groups. Many of the reported balloons also had a plastic string attached, creating yet another hazard for marine life.

Where did these balloons come from? They most likely came by sea from other areas. The north end of the Long Beach Peninsula, where Russ did his cleanups, is not frequented by many visitors. The same can be said of most of the other areas from which balloons were reported. These balloons were thus likely lost elsewhere, ended up in the ocean, and were carried by currents and winds to the beaches where they were found.

A rubber balloon coming ashore on the surf.

A rubber balloon coming ashore on the surf. (Photo Credit: Russ Lewis)

Compared to other types of marine debris, such as single-use food packaging (think water bottles, plastic bags, plastic containers), balloons are not as ubiquitous along the Washington coast. However, they are definitely there, and like other types of marine debris, their presence is entirely preventable. Although balloons with messages such as “Congrats,” “Get Well Soon,” “Happy Birthday,” and “I Love You” are cheerful for people, they are bad news for wildlife when they become marine debris.


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Marine Debris Projects Help Preserve Sea Turtles

By: Leah Henry

In a continued celebration of sea turtles this week, we’re highlighting a long-term marine debris removal project that is bringing turtles back to the beaches of Florida and an outreach project that aims to prevent balloons from becoming debris. Unfortunately, turtles sometimes ingest the balloons or become entangled in the ribbon attachments.

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and  Restoration Center support the Coastal Cleanup Corporation (CCC) in its effort to remove marine debris from sea turtle nesting habitat.

Bunch of balloons removed in Florida marine debris cleanup.

Bunch of balloons removed in Florida marine debris cleanup

In Elliott Key, Florida, CCC and its volunteers focus on removing plastics, glass, foam, rubber and discarded fishing gear that washes up on local beaches and interferes with female sea turtles’ journey from the ocean to their nesting sites. In one year, the volunteers and project leaders removed 3.39 tons of marine debris. This removal and restoration project provides long-term ecological improvements to coastal habitat used by endangered loggerhead and green sea turtles.

http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/removal-projects/coastal-cleanup-corporation-helps-sea-turtles-nest

Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management Program (VA CZM) and the NOAA Marine Debris Program use social marketing to mitigate the impacts of balloon debris.

A juvenile Kemp's ridley sea turtle ingests balloon debris (Photo Credit: Blair Witherington FWC)

A juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtle ingests balloon debris (Photo Credit: Blair Witherington FWC)

VA CZM at the Department of Environmental Quality designs a social marketing campaign to discourage balloon releases and encourage environmentally sensitive alternatives. By engaging and educating a wide variety of stakeholders, including event planners, funeral directors, car dealership employees, and sports team managers, we hope to reduce balloon litter in Virginia and protect the many different species affected by balloon debris, including the juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtle pictured above!

http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/prevention-projects/rising-concern-reducing-balloon-debris-through-social-marketing


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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)


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NYC Marine Science Festival: SUBMERGE!

By: Keith Cialino

On October 5, I represented the NOAA Marine Debris Program at Submerge!: NYC Marine Science Festival, hosted by the Hudson River Park Trust and New York Hall of Science. The event took place on Pier 26 in Manhattan, a beautiful location on the Hudson River with stunning views of the NYC skyline, including the new One World Trade Center skyscraper. More than 4,500 people came to the event to enjoy interactive marine science booths, free kayaking on the Hudson, informative talks, and tasty food. Even the live music was marine-themed and solar powered! One really neat thing about the event was the level of crowd engagement. Almost every table had a fun, educational, hands-on activity for kids and adults alike, and it seemed like visitors spent a lot of time at each booth.

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At the event, I gave a talk about small changes New Yorkers can make to prevent marine debris– things like drinking New York City’s great tap water instead of buying bottled water, checking their toiletries for microbeads, and not releasing balloons  into the environment.

NYC tap water instead of bottled water –https://marinedebrisblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/this-4th-of-july-dont-feed-the-animals-your-plastic/
Check toiletries for microbeads – https://marinedebrisblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/illinois-bans-plastic-microbeads-from-personal-care-products/
Don’t release balloons – https://marinedebrisblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/not-just-hot-air-celebrate-july-4-without-balloon-releases/

I also had a table with the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s interactive wheel of knowledge. It was a lot of fun talking with attendees about marine debris and hearing their answers to the marine debris questions from the wheel. The kids had creative answers to my “Name the 3 R’s” prompt. I heard great responses like respect, renew, and recharge, but we were able to get to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle by the time they walked away. One very young visitor to my booth told me, “I can’t even read yet!”, but, with me reading the question, he did know that we should not put our trash in the ocean. 100 people left our booth with the 2015 marine debris calendar, and many more left with new knowledge of marine debris in the NYC area.

More event photos: Flickr Account (Photos Credit: David Handschuh)


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What We Can Learn from North Carolina

By: Jason Rolfe

After spending three days with Lisa Rider last week, I know why she’s a local environmental legend. She does everything she can to eliminate marine debris from her home state of North Carolina and that’s a tall order. But Lisa has the energy, experience, and connections to make it happen.  As a bit of proof, she won this year’s Carolina Recycling Association Recycler of the Year award!  I was with Lisa and 30 of her closest green-thinking friends at her 2nd Annual Marine Debris Symposium. We discussed local cooperation and regional partnership opportunities to exchange information on recent developments, program ideas, and best management practices for marine debris prevention, education, and removal.

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I talked with the group about our NOAA Marine Debris Program and what we do nationally and in the Southeast to address marine debris. But what I found most valuable was learning from the scientists, government workers, waste management engineers, and educators who came from all over North Carolina to talk about their marine debris work. I was blown away by the depth of knowledge and passion that everyone brought to the Symposium.  After sharing updates and ideas during the days, we spent early afternoons out on the local beach and in a nearby bay cleaning up hundreds of cigarette butts, tiny pieces of foam, baby diapers, and even a 12 foot long garden hose complete with sprinkler attachment.  We cataloged all that we removed using the Marine Debris Tracker app – feel free to check out our haul!

The list below describes what’s been going on with marine debris in North Carolina and ways you could get involved. You can click on an activity or topic that interests you to find out more.  Do your part to help us rid our global ocean of marine debris.  C’mon, do something, even if it’s a small thing.  Lisa will be very proud of you!

Baby turtles safely make their way to the ocean thanks to these caring folks at Wrightsville Beach. For years, they’ve been cleaning up and recording what they find and they do their best to educate anyone who has a moment to learn about turtles, their nesting habits and ways that the public can help to keep the beaches open for turtle business.  Contact Ginger Taylor if you want to be part of the team!

sea turtleLocal Cleanups: Missed your chance to join an International Coastal Cleanup group but still want to do your part? Don’t fret; there are many other opportunities over the next few weeks with NC Big Sweep!

Shaping the marine debris field, professor and catalyst in the Southeast, Dr. Jenna Jambeck blogs about her experience. She’s also the brain behind many other marine debris initiatives as well as our very own Marine Debris Tracker app.

Through the Plastic Ocean Project, art and science come together to educate and motivate. And a whole lot more.

You know cigarette butts do not biodegrade, right?  They’re made mostly of plastic, affect marine animals, and as the most littered item found on our beaches, they cost a lot to cleanup.  So don’t throw your butt on the ground; use a personal ashtray!  Learn more from Keep America Beautiful.

Better recycling – cans, lids and signs oh my! Be sure to “twin the bin,” meaning, if you have an outdoor public access trash bin, it would be great if you could have a clearly marked and properly covered recycling bin secured right next to it.garbagebins

It’s better if we work together… to turn killer debris into vital habitat. North Carolina Coastal Federation, North Carolina Marine Patrol and local crab fishermen, partner to remove derelict crab pots that continue to trap crabs and other coastal animals long after the crabbing season is over.  Once they’re pulled out of the water, the pots are cleaned and made so that they can’t trap anymore, then they are dipped in mortar and ultimately put back in coastal waters to form a stable base for much needed oyster reef habitat!

Are you ready for the next big storm?  Did you move all the trash cans, lawn chairs and that kiddie pool inside before the wind turns them into marine debris? Learn more tips from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.

Want to know more about the impacts of derelict fishing gear? Keep your eyes open for a new paper coming out from North Carolina Sea Grant. They fund research and outreach that identifies and addresses the impacts of marine debris to coastal ecosystems and communities.  They’ve been working as a valuable resource for unbiased, scientifically sound information about the North Carolina’s coastal ecosystems since 1970!NCCB

Do you keep your boat at a marina?  Is it a certified North Carolina Clean Marina?  If not, perhaps, encourage your marina operators to fill out a simple application.  Once certified, they will be listed on NC’s State site and will receive a Clean Marina flag that they can fly proudly over their marina to prove they care enough about our coastal environment, and the local waters, to take the steps necessary to address trash and improve boating.   Do your part, too – find out how to be a certified NC Clean Boater and take responsibility for the waters around you!

Do you run a business in North Carolina?  Maybe you’re in charge of a weekend festival or you work at a hotel and you want to encourage hotel management to consider ways to reduce trash and increase recycling.  Follow a few tips from the NC Green Travel folks to save money AND prevent marine debris at the same time!  There is absolutely NO fee and it doesn’t take long to fill out the application.  Once your business or event is certified, you’d be listed on their website and get free advertising.


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The International Coastal Cleanup Turns the Tide on Trash

By: Asma Mahdi

What does fishing line, a miniature plastic toy dog, and a single use water bottle have in common? They’re all marine debris found at this year’s International Coastal Cleanup.

Volunteers across the country from the Eastern shores of the U.S. to the Hawaiian islands participated in the largest single-day, volunteer effort to help protect our oceans from trash. In California alone, volunteers prevented nearly 680,000 pounds of trash from entering our oceans – stopping it in its tracks.

Thank you to all volunteers who came out on Saturday to clean up our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Here’s a look at what NOAA volunteers across the nation found during the cleanup event:

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