By Carol Vaughn —
A law prohibiting the release of balloons outdoors in Virginia took effect July 1, marking a victory for environmentalists who long advocated for the measure.
The law, sponsored by Del. Nancy Guy (D-Virginia Beach) “prohibits the intentional releasing, discarding, or causing to be released any balloon outdoors.”
Violators face a civil penalty of $25 per balloon released. If a minor under age 16 releases a balloon at the direction of an adult, the adult is liable.
Fines will go into the Game Protection Fund.
A previous version of the law, dating to 1991, allowed release of up to 49 balloons within a one-hour period, according to a press release from Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University.
Bills to prohibit balloon releases or to reduce the allowable number to one balloon were introduced in the General Assembly in 2015 and 2020 but failed to pass.
Balloons and related items littering area beaches and waterways are harmful to wildlife like sea turtles and birds, who may die when they ingest them or get entangled, according to scientists.
“Latex balloons, foil balloons, plastic ribbons, and other balloon attachments are among the deadliest types of ocean trash,” said Katie Register, executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways and author of the 2021 report, “Deadly Litter: Balloons & Plastic Ribbons on Virginia’s Coastal Beaches,” in the release.
Balloons were among the top types of litter found on Virginia beaches in a monitoring project, according to the report.
To sea turtles, balloons look a lot like jellyfish, one of turtles’ major food sources. Balloons have been found in the stomachs of turtles found dead as well as turtles rescued by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Team.
Balloon litter often ends up between the high tide line and dune vegetation on remote beaches, which impacts nesting migratory shorebirds and sea turtles, said Kathy O’Hara, a marine researcher who has studied how balloons and ribbons accumulate on coastal beaches.
“Balloon-related litter is often the #1 most common type of debris found during our surveys,” she said.
“It is also important to note that sky lanterns are not a good alternative and are also illegal in Virginia,” said Christina Trapani, a marine debris researcher and PreventBalloonLitter.org
partner, who supported revising the 1991 law.
“If people celebrate with balloons, they need to know that the law now prohibits releasing those balloons,” Trapani said.
A marine debris monitoring project conducted between 2014 and 2018, funded by NOAA through the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, included two Eastern Shore sites and two other locations — Fishermans Island National Wildlife Refuge, Assateague Island National Seashore, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and Grandview Nature Preserve in Hampton.
Researchers gathered data through monthly surveys to serve as a baseline against which to evaluate effectiveness of Virginia’s Marine Debris Management Plan, created in 2014.
Virginia was the first East Coast state to have such a plan.
Balloons were the second most common item found, behind bottle caps.
The Coastal Zone Management Program also partnered with Longwood University’s Clean Virginia Waterways on a project specifically focused on balloon litter, also funded through NOAA.
A 2014-2018 study by the Virginia Aquarium and CVW found balloons were the most frequently recorded type of litter at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and were the third most frequently recorded litter type on Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge.
In a 2014 beach cleanup at Assateague in Virginia, volunteers found 904 balloons in three hours.
On Fisherman Island, 212 pieces of balloon-related litter were found in 1/2 mile in a November 2020 count.
Over a five-year period, Virginia International Coastal Cleanup volunteers reported 4,916 pieces of balloon litter — 63.5% were found on ocean beaches.
More remote beaches had significantly more balloon litter compared to public beaches, according to the 2021 report.
The amount of balloons and ribbons recorded by O’Hara and Trapani in research conducted between 2013 and 2017 varied among the remote coastal beaches they surveyed — including Cedar, Hog, and Smith Islands, Fisherman Island NWR, and False Cape State Park — ranging from 25 items per mile on Cedar Island to more than 272 items per mile on Fisherman Island NWR, according to “Balloon Litter on Virginia’s Remote Beaches,” a 2018 report from CVW to the Virginia CZM Program.
During the study, 11,441 balloon-related litter items were recorded over the course of 46 surveys.
The 96-page report can be viewed at https://www.deq.virginia.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/8353/637540016083100000
The protocol O’Hara and Trapani developed to track balloon and other litter is now being used by other states, including New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland as part of a regional campaign to decrease balloon releases, according to the report.
In a survey, 49% of balloon releases in Virginia were related to funerals or memorials, with the next largest percentage, 12% each, done for weddings or to raise awareness or funds for a cause, according to “Balloon Litter on Virginia’s Remote Beaches.”
Advocates are promoting alternatives to balloon releases to celebrate events.
“Thanks to CZM funding from NOAA to study this issue and create a campaign to change behavior around using balloons, organizations across Virginia, the Mid-Atlantic, and around the world are signing on as partners on our website to spread the word about ways to celebrate, or memorialize loved ones, without harming wildlife,” said Laura McKay, Virginia CZM Program Manager.
Alternatives include planting a native tree or garden or blowing bubbles, she said.
JoyfulSendoff.org, a website designed by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and and Clean Virginia Waterways, and PreventBalloonLitter.org have information about alternatives to balloon releases for celebrations and memorial events.
In addition to helping wildlife, the revised law likely will mitigate impacts caused when balloons become entangled in power lines, according to the release.
Research by CVW and the Virginia CZM program found a significant correlation between balloons and power outages, with up to 20% of outages caused by released balloons, according to the release.
“The Nature Conservancy’s Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve owns and manages many of Virginia’s barrier islands and we see firsthand how prevalent balloon litter is even at these remote sites. With every tide, new balloons are deposited, littering the shoreline and threatening not only wildlife in the water but also along the beaches,” said Alex Wilke, coastal scientist for the conservancy. “The Nature Conservancy in Virginia supported House Bill 2159 banning the intentional release of non-biodegradable balloons outdoors during this year’s General Assembly and is pleased that it has been signed into law. We appreciate Del. Nancy Guy for sponsoring the bill and the many people and conservation partners whose work moved this important policy to help combat the global issue of marine debris forward.”