Once released, helium balloons can drift for hundreds of kilometres before descending, or bursting, to produce many fragments that also descend. Often these end up in the ocean. Marine animals can mistake them for food and swallow them or become entangled in the attached ribbon. Such encounters can lead to loss of limbs, drowning or starvation for turtles, seabirds, whales, dolphins, and dugongs.
At a recent Senate inquiry into marine debris Dr Kathy Townsend from the University of Queensland explained that balloons are attractive to seabirds and turtles because they look similar to squid and jellyfish. Intact balloons have been found in the intestines of marine fauna. Balloons are not digested and can block the intestines.
While some balloons are biodegradable, the process can take up to four years, which is ample time to injure and kill. The ribbons and clips often attached to balloons are not biodegradable and will remain in the environment indefinitely.
Helium balloons, balloon fragments and associated detritus wash up on beaches all over the world providing an on-going hazard to marine life. The beaches of the Perth suburb of Cottesloe are no exception. What makes Cottesloe exceptional is that its Council is one of the first in Australia to ban the release of helium balloons.
In February 2016 Tangaroa Blue facilitated a Source Reduction Plan (SRP) workshop in Cottesloe. Councillor Sandra Boulter attended the workshop and then began working within council frameworks and with the local community to have the release of helium balloons banned. Numerous organisations have been involved, including Keep Australia Beautiful WA, Earth Carers, and Boycott Balloons Fremantle, along with many local community members.
In an aptly timed move, on World Turtle Day the Council voted unanimously to ban the release of helium balloons bringing Cottesloe one step closer to reducing the amount of hazardous marine debris at the source.
This provides a wonderful example of how data collected at beach clean-ups can assist local communities and governments to create change to reduce marine litter at the source, which is Tangaroa Blue Foundation’s ultimate goal.
Numerous alternative methods of promotion are available to responsible businesses, and alternatives to the release of balloons are available to mark occasions and celebrations. With better education about the dangers balloons pose to wildlife, there is better community understanding about why alternatives to releasing balloons are preferable.
Congratulations to Sandra Boulter, the Council and community of Cottesloe and the many people and organisations involved for their leadership on this issue and commitment to marine life. Let’s hope this is the first of many councils banning the release of helium balloons!