While balloons may seem like harmless fun, when they are released into the air they can cause serious problems for our environment. Recognizing the threats balloons pose to the Bay Area’s wildlife and marine habitats, the City of Berkeley has studied and debated balloon regulation for years—and 2015 could be the year that the city finally reins in the environmental impacts of helium-filled balloon release.
After being released into the air, balloons often end up in waterways, where they can be consumed by fish and other marine wildlife, causing harm and death. For bayside communities like Berkeley, this possibility is of particular concern. Balloons made of aluminized Mylar also have conductive properties and have been known to cause power shortages upon contact with power lines, posing a hazard for utility workers. Birds, meanwhile, can become entangled in the strings attached to balloons.
The State of California has partially addressed the issue by passing a law requiring that helium-filled foil balloons carry a warning label and be anchored with a weight when sold. California law also prohibits the release of helium-filled balloons made of electrically-conductive material like Mylar at specified events. However, no state law regulates latex balloons.
In 2008, recognizing the threat that releasing helium-filled balloons poses to the environment, the Berkeley City Council referred the issue to the City’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC). The Council requested that the Commission explore a public education campaign and restrictions on sales of helium-filled balloons. In November 2009, the CEAC returned to the City Council with recommendations to: 1) declare the release of balloons to be an environmental and physical hazard, 2) prohibit the release of balloons at special events permitted by the City, and 3) initiate a public education campaign regarding the hazards of balloon release.
An industry group of latex and Mylar balloon producers called The Balloon Council vigorously opposed the City’s modest proposal and engaged in an intense lobbying campaign to thwart it. Unfortunately, their efforts were successful in creating enough confusion and concern that the Council voted to table the issue for future consideration. The Balloon Council has also successfully blocked attempts at the state level to legislatively address release of helium-filled latex balloons.
This past October, Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin re-introduced the issue of regulating the release of helium-filled balloons in Berkeley. In December, the City Council once again referred the issue of regulating balloon releases to the CEAC. The CEAC is expected to present the Council with proposals on how to address the environmental impact of balloon releases early this year.
The Sierra Club—whose Northern Alameda County Group voted to support the concept of balloon regulation—will be following this issue as it works its way through the commission process and will continue to advocate for measures to mitigate the harmful effects of balloon litter in our Bay. For more information or to get involved, email Northern Alameda County Group Executive Committee member Luis Amezcua at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Luis Amezcua