East Hampton Town could once again set an example in banning balloons, but is it going a step too far? The town was among the first to prohibit the intentional release of helium-filled balloons, in a 2019 law. Now, at the urging of several student groups and Town Trustee Susan McGraw Keber, the board members are thinking about whether to block balloons altogether.
Without a doubt, balloons and balloon fragments that float around in the seas are a problem. An Avenue Studio of the Hamptons seventh-grade student told the town board that recent spring and fall beach cleanups revealed that 15 percent of the trash collected was balloon-related. Most anyone who has spent any time around the water can attest to their ubiquity, whether floating or washed ashore. Look closely among the seaweed line, and you will see innumerable small pieces of balloon ribbon. Mylar-type plastic balloons often remain intact long after their shiny decorations have worn away — some tiny fragments of the coatings entering the wildlife food chain.
The students — including East Hampton elementary and high schoolers — might have been surprised by the enthusiastic response to their presentations. Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc seemed in favor of a total ban, not just of helium-filled balloons, but of balloons altogether. This would appear to be too much; given the scale of plastic pollution around the globe, prohibiting air-filled balloons, ones that will not float away if released, is excessive do-gooderism of the sort that can obscure focus on other kinds of environmental pollution. Balloons are an easy target, when faced with the vastly more complex causes of marine degradation.
This is similar to the remarkable success of a regional movement sparked by students at the Montauk School to limit plastic straws. That initiative led to bans on most single-use straws and stirrers and was precusor to the recent tough limits on plastic shopping bags and foam takeout containers. Our roadsides and waterways are cleaner as a result.
That said, we now know enough to favor a Mylar balloon ban and certainly a ban on helium-filled balloons, with the exception of those used in meteorological and other scientific pursuits. Clearly there is a problem with these reaching the oceans, but banning all balloons does not appear justified. Indoor-use balloons, particularly latex, should remain on the market for now.