PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island joined a slew of states recently by banning the release of large numbers of balloons in an effort to protect the environment.
On Friday Governor Dan McKee signed the legislation, which had passed in the General Assembly earlier this year. Under the new law, the state will prohibit anyone from intentionally releasing 10 or more helium or other lighter-than-air balloons outdoors.
Wildlife advocates say that balloon releases, which have typically been used as a display for memorials or celebrations, have become an environmental nuisance as birds and marine animals can ingest or become entangled in the balloon litter. When the law takes effect in November, violators will face a fine of $100. The law does not impact hot-air balloons, indoor balloon releases, or scientific and weather research.
The original bill, introduced by Rep. Susan Donovan, a Bristol Democrat, in 2020, had prohibited the intentional release of any number of balloons, and subjected violators to a $500 fine.
Balloons Blow, a nonprofit organization dedicated to pushing for balloon-ban legislation, lists a number of environmentally friendly alternatives to balloons on their website, such as planting trees in remembrance of a loved one, ribbon dances, colorful pinwheels, floating flowers, and more. The nonprofit’s co-founder Danielle Vosburgh told the Globe in an email that while this ban is an important first step, it’s disappointing the original bill was not passed.
“Instead of banning the release of any number of balloons, the bill was watered down — probably by influence of the balloon industry — to allow 10 balloons to be released. That is essentially making it legal to release 10 flyaway death traps,” said Vosburgh. “It is difficult to understand why any legislator would want to make it legal to litter, but they just did.”
Vosburgh said balloon-banning laws would need to include any number of balloons — and all types of balloons — to be fully effective.
Donovan’s initial bill received widespread support from environmental groups and fisherman’s associations. According to Donovan, plastic pollution is a threat to the state’s entire coastline. In a statewide cleanup in September 2018, Save The Bay announced that plastic remains of 737 balloons were found along the state’s shores.
“While Rhode Island’s new law may help reduce the amount of balloons being purposely sent off to pollute the planet and kill unsuspecting animals, what is needed is a global ban on this mindless littering,” said Vosburgh. “While many states and municipalities around the world are banning wasteful, trashy, balloons, it remains difficult as the balloon industry, with their powerful and well-funded balloon lobby, continues to influence legislators who then loosen intended restrictions.”
In April 2018, the town council of New Shoreham voted unanimously to ban the sale and use of balloons throughout the town, which is on Block Island, because of environmental concerns. Months earlier, the town council had banned one-time-use plastic grocery bags for the same reasons.
A few years ago, bans on intentional balloon releases were established at the municipal level, and places including Provincetown and Nantucket in Massachusetts chose to ban the act. With this new law, Rhode Island joins Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland, and other states in banning the release of a large number of balloons statewide.
The Balloon Council, an organization of retailers, distributors, and manufacturers that looks to “educate consumers and regulators” about balloons, released a statement recently that said balloons should not be released.
“In the past TBC didn’t advocate for or against balloon releases, we advised people on the best practices to minimize environmental impact such as only using latex and not adding strings,” said Council chairman Dan Flynn. “Over the years, as the social and political climates have changed, our position has also evolved. This change in stance fully recognizes the need for everyone to be as ‘green’ as we possibly can be to protect our planet.”
National retailers whose sales largely depend on decorations like balloons, such as Party City, have told consumers that all balloons should be weighted down and are not to be released outdoors.
Some national celebrations are already implementing alternatives.
For Black Balloon Day, which takes place on March 6, people across the US remember and celebrate loved ones lost to overdoses and bring awareness to the opioid epidemic. The day is typically marked with a release of thousands of black balloons. The organization behind the annual event, Overdose Lifeline, now offers a way to release virtual balloons instead.