A small group of family members gather on the anniversary of a loved one's passing, and, as part of the commemoration, a dozen balloons are released and soar towards the heavens. As the balloons become smaller and smaller in the distance, the family lingers a little longer and basks in the good feeling of having paid homage to one who is dearly missed.
However, this celebration of a life may actually end in the death of another creature.
Balloons released accidentally or as part of a ceremony often end up in places that birds, animals and sea creatures call home. Even so called biodegradable balloons end up as litter that is often ingested by birds and animals with deadly results. Add a few feet of ribbon and you have a recipe for disaster for birds and animals that end up tangled and unable to survive.
Balloon litter is especially harmful to marine life. The number of fatalities that result from the ingestion of plastic litter, including balloons, is staggering.
Many states have laws prohibiting or controlling the release of balloons. Florida does not allow the release of balloons and there are penalties for doing so -- but the law is seldom enforced. Like most laws, voluntary compliance is more important than enforcement, and most people comply with laws when they understand what happens when they don't. Education is key and we all need to do more to assure that people understand the harmful consequences of seemingly innocent balloon releases.
As with most issues facing our planet, the most important step you can take is to modify your own behavior. The first step is simple: don't release balloons into the air for any reason, and be careful to avoid accidental releases, too.
The next step is to educate others. Make sure your family and friends know that balloon releases can be deadly. Share social media posts and emails with others and do all you can to get the word out.
When planning events, make a point to avoid the use of balloons, especially outdoors. For decorating outdoors use kites or paper flowers. Flags and banners are also festive and usually do no harm to the environment.
For commemorative celebrations, careful use of candles and bubbles can be a harmless alternative to balloon releases.
The key is education. Make sure schools, churches and civic groups that you are part of know and understand the harmful consequences of balloon releases. Do you part to encourage alternatives and make people aware of laws in your state.
Try as we may, some people will release balloons, and balloon based toys are becoming popular at area beaches. Be on the lookout for floating balloons and retrieve them if it's safe to do so. Carry a litter bag with you at the beach and be especially alert to plastic and latex litter. Notify life guards or park rangers if you see groups releasing balloons or just being careless.
These simple steps, repeated by the tens of thousands of residents along the Gulf Coast, can have a very positive impact. We are small but we are many and that is powerful.