Balloon releases now banned in Hawaiʻi to protect marine life
In Hawaiʻi, a new statewide law banning the intentional release of balloons — and the strongest such measure in the country — went into effect Jan. 1, 2023.
Other laws in the United States allow for the release of up to a set number of balloons such as 25, 50 or 100 or there’s a loophole for “biodegradable” balloons.
Worldwide, the only other place with a similar law is the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, according to the all-volunteer, non-profit, Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaiʻi (B.E.A.C.H.)
The only exemptions in Hawaiʻi’s new law are for hot air balloons, balloons released indoors and remaining indoors, and balloons released by the government for scientific or meteorological purposes.
Fines are $500 per offense for violators who release, organize or cause the release of balloons.
The bill was introduced in the House by Speaker Scott Saiki and in the Senate by senators Karl Rhoads and Mike Gabbard.
“Reducing plastic marine debris is critical to the survival of Hawaiʻi’s marine life and this new law will prevent one of the most lethal types of debris and save lives of marine animals and birds,” said Suzanne Frazer, Co-Founder and President of B.E.A.C.H.
Sea turtles, albatrosses and other marine life that eat squid and jellyfish can mistake balloons in the ocean for food. A study of sea turtle ingestion found that 78% of debris items eaten were balloon fragments.
All species of sea turtles are known to ingest jellyfish, which balloons resemble after they go through a process of brittle fracture that occurs when helium balloons rise to a height of approximately 5 miles in the air and then burst. This creates long strands that resemble the tentacles of jellyfish or squid, according to a study.
When ingested, balloons become sticky and gooey and are impossible for an animal or bird to move through their digestive system. Blockages of the gastro-intestinal tract caused by balloons leads the animal or bird to starve to death.
“Balloons were the marine debris most likely to cause mortality,” according to another study published in Scientific Reports. “Where ingestion of balloons or balloon fragments were found, these fragments were the known or probable cause of death in 18.5% of balloon ingesting seabirds, with the ingestion of a balloon or balloon fragment is 32 times more likely to result in death than ingestion of a hard plastic fragment.”
The plastic ribbons attached to balloons are also a danger as they can cause injury or death to marine life that become entangled in them or ingest them.
Balloon releases also are a problem because they have been responsible for causing power outages in Hawaiʻi affecting thousands of residents. In addition, balloons are filled with helium which is a rare gas on earth.
Helium is essential for use in scientific and medical applications, including to cool MRI machines. There may only be a little more than 100 years of helium left on earth. Using helium in balloons is extremely wasteful.
As well as being wasteful, releasing balloons is an act of littering. There are many other non-lethal ways to celebrate or commemorate such as creating a garden, tree planting, giving lei or lighting candles.
B.E.A.C.H. has seen increases in balloon litter on Hawaiʻi beaches around May and June during graduation season.
B.E.A.C.H. collected more than 1,500 signatures from people across Hawaiʻi in support of state action on marine debris including banning balloon releases. The petition was presented to the Environmental committees in the Senate and House as well as former Governor David Ige.