Helium balloons banned on Nantucket

Mia Silverio & Sophie Davies


(April 16, 2015)

Mylar balloons are currently sold at the Nantucket Stop and Shop.

Island voters have endorsed a ban on helium balloons on Nantucket. The new law was proposed by Scott Leonard, the Director of Operations at the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program, who sponsored a warrant article that was approved at last week’s Annual Town Meeting. The new law still needs to be approved by the state attorney general before it can take effect on Nantucket.

The article is written as follows: “A ban on the sale and/or use of any type of balloon (including, and not limited to, plastic, latex, or Mylar balloons) to be inflated with any type of lighter than air gas (including, and not limited to, helium gas). People importing such novelties from off-island, but disposing of them on-island in any manner other than being contained in a plastic trash bag and transported to the landfill, shall be fined pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 1, Article II by Noncriminal Disposition at $50 per offense.”

The ban ultimately means that one cheap form of decoration and celebration is no longer available to Nantucketers. It could pose problems for homecoming festivities such as making floats, decorating hallways, as well as well as decorating for events such as prom, birthday parties, and the Nantucket High School Spanish Club Dinner.

“I am already trying to figure out how we are going to change, I guess we are going to have to get more creative with our decorations . . . we can blow up our own balloons (with air) and hang them from the ceiling. I am all about being creative and, you know, not breaking the law,” said NHS Spanish teacher Jill Surprenant about the Spanish Club’s annual function which has historically used helium-filled balloons to transform the NHS cafeteria.

The article was proposed to help protect wildlife. Helium balloons, if released into the air, either intentionally or by accident when one comes loose, can travel great distances. Eventually, they pop, falling back down to the Earth. This can cause pollution anywhere, even in remote areas that would otherwise go untouched. They especially cause issues when organisms mistake the balloons for food, or when they become entangled in the balloon’s string.

“Solid Waste, helium depletion, animal mortality… these are the reasons we banned, ‘lighter than air gas’ balloons on Nantucket. These are the reasons we should ban them nationwide. Think about it” wrote Leonard, who sponsored the warrant article at Town Meeting, on his Facebook page after the ban was passed.

“Like plastics, they [balloons] are ingested when birds, turtles, marine mammals and other creatures mistake them for prey. The ribbons are infamous for entangling animals (land and sea), strangling them, or preventing them from functioning well enough to survive. These deaths are generally protracted and horribly painful. For example, in 1985 ‘A young emaciated sperm whale was found dying on the shores of New Jersey as the result of a mylar balloon lodged in its stomach and three feet of purple ribbon wound through its intestines” (O’Hara et al., 1988, p. 22).’”

Leonard added that in addition to the litter and the animal mortality that helium balloons cause, they are also contributing to the rapid depletion of the world’s supply of helium.

“Then there’s helium depletion. This is one most people have no idea about. Helium is the second most common element on Earth. However, we have a very hard time containing and storing it. Which means its price will go up and its use in the medical world and nuclear world as a super cooler will be diminished. Professor of physics, Robert Richardson from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, winner of the 1996 Nobel prize for his work on superfluidity in helium, and co-chair of the US National Research Council inquiry into the coming helium shortage warned — ‘the supplies of helium are being used at an unprecedented rate and could be depleted within a generation…’” he wrote in an email.

According to Leonard, 80 percent of the world’s helium supply comes from a storage facility called The Amarillo in Texas. This 80 percent is around one billion cubic meters of gas.

“The balloon ban is important because it will greatly reduce litter. But also, a complicating factor is that a lot of litter ends up on our shores from other places….so the reason we are doing this is to set a good example,” said Dr. Sarah Oktay, Managing Director of the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station.

The balloon ban will negatively affect event planners like Nantucketer Tammy King, who started working for her mother’s business and filling up balloons at the age of 13.

“I do a lot of volunteer and private functions at the moment and the reason I am opposed to this is because it is an all out ban and once it is banned it is gone for good,” said King. “At this moment I am not sure if I will continue in the business at all.”

Latex balloons are produced from the sap of a rubber tree and, according to the National Balloon Council (NBC), “is collected without harming the tree by using an environmentally safe, age-old process similar to that used for collecting the sap from maple trees for syrup.” The NBC writes on their website that, “Research shows that regardless of the latex balloon’s ultimate form when it lands, it will decompose, forming a natural soil nutrient at the same rate as that of an oak leaf.” The NBC also claims that since latex balloons are 100 percent biodegradable, “ balloons — including mass balloon releases — do not constitute a serious litter or ecological problem.” Nantucket environmentalists disagree with this information and posit that balloons actually take up to four years to decompose.

Mylar balloons, by contrast, are made from a foil-like plastic material and are derived from polyester. Mylar is not biodegradable.

King explained that she would rather educate the public about proper balloon disposal, which is popping each balloon and cutting each string off. She also proposed that instead of a ban, the town of Nantucket could require that every balloon be attached to a weight so that it could not fly away and endanger wildlife.

“I’ve done this so long that the happiness, the joy that I see when I deliver balloons or when I decorate or even when I walk into a store and see them, I smile and I just don’t want that to disappear.  I am sure they bring joy to other people as well. There is a way around them that we don’t have to ban them” said King.

Oktay did not concur. “You  can still have balloons, you just can’t have them filled with helium. You can have water balloons, you can tie balloons to a stick, you can make balloon animals. I don’t think the joy they bring are equal to the sadness they bring. There are ways to celebrate happy occasions other than balloons.”

“I thought the ban was silly at first,” said Brian Glowacki, who opposed the ban and attempted to amend the article at Town Meeting. “I never imagined that we would choose to pass a law rather than just educating people as to the danger of releasing balloons and their impact on the environment.”

In the end, however, Glowacki agrees with the principle of the article.

“The beauty of our form of government is that someone can raise the question in an article and the people get to decide if they want to adopt it,” said Glowacki. “Although it may seem like an inconvenience now, I believe that this law shows that Nantucket as a whole is willing to step up and make changes needed to protect the wildlife and surrounding waters.  So even though I was against the ban, I am happy to get on board and do my part to help the planet.”

“As humanity turns towards a new understanding of our environment — the ecosystem we are only a part of and so connected with — we must look to the next generation with the hope we are setting steps in motion that — you — may build upon. Many of those who voted in favor of Article 80 — banning the sale and use of lighter than air gas balloons — were from the 20 – 30 age group. This included biologist Justine Paradise, a Nantucket High School graduate who eloquently spoke to the voters about the science behind the ban. ‘It will be your world. I would like it to be a magnificent one,’” said Leonard.

This ban on lighter than air balloons has brought many other things into question. In light of this most recent article, as well as other cities banning environmentally hazardous materials, there is talk of making other changes to help preserve our island. For instance, many residents are interested in following in San Francisco’s footsteps and banning the sale of water bottles.

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