As Plastic Straw Bans Gain Momentum, Will Balloons be Next?

No minor joy or modern convenience is safe.


Miriam Doerr/

Having extracted the straw from your milkshake in Seattle and ruined your boba tea experience in San Francisco, America's anti-straw crusaders have moved on to a new cause: banning birthday balloons.

Or at least that is what the headlines say.

"Plastic Bags and Straws Are Banned in Some Places. Here's Why Balloons Could Be Next," reads the headline at Time. "Plastic balloons join plastic straw controversy," announces Newsweek. "First it was plastic bags, then plastic straws. Now environmental groups are urging a ban on balloons," says National Public Radio.

An anti-balloon movement is certainly blowing in the wind. In April of this year, the town of New Shoreham, Rhode Island, banned the "sale, use or distribution" of balloons; pop off one of these prohibited inflatables and you'll be looking at a maximum $200 fine. And New Shoreham isn't alone. According to the anti-balloon group Balloons Blow, the Massachusetts towns of Nantucket and Provincetown both ban the sale and use of balloons. (Provincetown's only applies to the helium-filled ones.)

A creeping number of Florida cities and counties have banned balloons entirely on publicly-owned beaches and parks over the past two years. Fines for violators in some localities can hit $250, although park police say they'll go with warnings for first-time offenders. Last year also saw the introduction of bills in Washington and New Jersey that would make it illegal to intentionally release balloons. New Jersey's legislation, which ultimately failed, could have fined folks $500 for intentionally releasing even a single balloon.

Yet how closely this focus on banning balloons is the direct result of the movement to ban plastic straws is tough to say.

Unlike straw bans, which are a very recent phenomenon, the move against balloons goes back to the late 1980s. California has banned the release of foil balloons since 1990. Connecticut and Florida have long prohibited the release of more than 10 balloons within 24 hours. Plenty of other counties and cities have cracked down over the years on the "quick thrill" that is a balloon release.

But the obsessive focus on banning single-use plastic straws may have breathed new life into a dormant war on balloons. That has, in fact, been the explicit hope of anti-straw groups like Lonely Whale. One argument they have offered for straw bans is that the suckers are a "gateway plastic" whose prohibition will lead to bigger and better crackdowns on single-use plastic items.

"The issue of straws has really broadened the marine debris issue," Emma Tonge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), tells the Associated Press.

Anti-straw groups such as the Ocean Conservancy and the Marine Conservation Society have both also come out against balloons. Even writers and outlets, such as David Perry and The Outline, who have criticized straw bans for their ableism have been happy to hype balloons as more dangerous and less essential items that could potentially be banned instead.

The justifications for banning balloons mirror those of straw prohibitions: saving sea turtles and other wildlife from yet another aspect of our throwaway culture.

"We are very concerned about the environment. There's a lot of information out there of damages that balloons do to the wildlife," Kenneth Lacoste, first warden of the New Shoreham town council, tells CNN.

"Many animals are attracted to the bright colors 6 of balloons and mistake them for food which can cause severe injury or death. Many more animals become entangled in balloon strings and are injured or strangled to death as a result," reads the text of the 2017 New Jersey balloon release ban.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) put up photos of dead birds and sea turtles that had become entangled in balloon strings. "Some of the following pictures are hard to look at, but they make clearer than any words why we all should find alternatives to letting a balloon go," the agency explained.

As with straws, balloons' effect on the oceans have been overblown. They make up a tiny portion of the overall number of items collected via coastal clean ups each year—not even cracking into the top 10 number of items found, according to Ocean Conservancy, which runs a global coastal clean up each year. Balloons make up about 1 percent of items collected by California's coastal clean-up. (Straws make up about 3 percent.)

It's more plausible that balloons pose an outsized risk to wildlife. Birds and other animals can get tangled up in their strings fairly easily. And while latex, helium-filled balloons are supposed to shatter into tiny pieces when they float too high, plenty still manage to fall into the sea intact enough to be mistaken for food by sea turtles.

A survey of marine debris experts found balloons were ranked the sixth most likely item to impact marine animals. That makes them more impactful than straws and stirrers, but less dangerous than fishing gear, utensils, and plastic pieces.

When animals do swallow balloons, they're far from the only pieces of trash that they're eating. A 2012 survey of dead Australian turtles found that up to a third of them had debris in their bellies, and a third of that third had swallowed a balloon. Nevertheless, the balloons accounted for only about 3 percent of all debris recovered from the turtles' stomachs.

Many will say that that's still too many balloons being eaten by sea turtles, and they're probably right about that. It is true as well that unlike straws, which need only make their way to the garbage can to not become an environmental problem, releasing balloons into the air is in effect littering.

Nevertheless, the fact that balloons can be such a tiny percentage of the plastic debris in animals' stomachs shows the absurdity of focusing on a single item rather than dealing with the problem of plastic (and rubber) marine debris holistically. Solving that problem requires fewer bans on individual items and better waste management in East Asia and Africa, where the vast majority of marine debris and plastic waste originates.