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Why Cape towns see balloons as an environmental threat

Globe file photo

First, it was plastic bags. Then plastic straws. Could balloon bans take off next?

Orleans could be the fourth Cape Cod town to ban to balloons filled with lighter-than-air gas such as helium.

Environmentalists say that the tradition of releasing balloons into the air can be deadly when pieces fall back to earth and are ingested by seabirds and turtles. The creatures could also become entangled in the strings.

Towns and cities across the country have banned balloons that contain these types of gases.

Orleans’ Board of Selectmen voted Jan. 2 to hold a public hearing on whether the sale and use of balloons should be prohibited. The idea is modeled after similar bans in Chatham and Nantucket, and would start Sept. 15 if passed.


“This is a potential environmental degradation,” said Alan McClennen Jr., an Orleans selectmen. “We need to understand what the impact of discarded balloons, of all types, may have on our environment.”

The proposed ban was first reported by the Cape Cod Times.

McClennen, who takes two-mile walks on Orleans’ beaches every day, said he has seen balloons more than any other type of trash during his walks.

“I know all types of wildlife are attracted to colorful objects, and I will see little pieces, which means animals might have gotten into it,” he said. “I don’t know if animals have tried to ingest them or not, but I have seen evidence that they might have.”

The fine for violating the ban would be up to $50, according to the proposal. The ban, proposed last December by the town’s Conservation Commission, came about after a plastic bag ban in 2017, said John Jannell, the town’s conservation administrator.

In Chatham and Nantucket, balloon bans have gone over smoothly with residents, according to people familiar with the bylaws. Both bans are similar in language to the one proposed in Orleans.


Chatham residents voted in May to prohibit lighter-than-air balloons, with it going into effect in September. Robert Duncanson, Chatham’s director of health and natural resources, said he hasn’t heard any complaints about the new bylaw, but due to it starting in September, it might take time to see how effective it is with residents.

Nantucket voted to put their ban in place in 2015. Scott Leonard, director of operations at the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program, proposed the ban after working on it for two years.

“This is the trajectory we all have to look at and go down because things are changing and part of that change is how our behavior has affected the environment in negative ways,” Leonard said, referring to why the ban is necessary. “We must do better.”

Nantucket Police Lieutenant Angus MacVicar said that to his knowledge, no one has been fined nor have there been any service calls for police concerning the ban.

Provincetown residents voted in 2014 to enact a ban on helium-filled balloons.

A date has not yet been set for the public hearing in Orleans.

Breanne Kovatch can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @breannekovatch.