When Jay Falstad tells of the cluster of balloons that landed on Unicorn Lake near his home in Queen Anne’s County, MD, it sounds like he’s beginning a children’s tale. Instead, it begins the story of the first county-based balloon ban in the state.A mylar balloon is washed up on a beach on Assateague Island in Maryland. Communities are increasingly looking at banning the mass release of balloons, which pose a threat to wildlife. (Ann Richardson)

The balloons Falstad spotted near his home on the Eastern Shore came with an “if found” phone number to call written on them with a Sharpie pen. When he dialed it, the person who answered was nearly 500 miles away in Dayton, OH, and had released the balloons from there four days before.

Falstad found it hard to believe that helium-filled latex balloons could travel so far. Then he started noticing them everywhere.

“I was seeing balloons in ditches, in trees, in farm fields,” said Falstad, who, despite being executive director of Queen Anne’s Conservation Association, hadn’t previously thought of balloons as a large source of litter. He realized that those released in his county, often in high numbers around school graduations, “are probably out at sea if we’re finding ones here from Ohio.”

Falstad reached out to a county commissioner about introducing a ban on balloon releases at a meeting this summer, and “the support was overwhelming.” The new law levies a $250 fine for the deliberate release of “non-biodegradable helium balloons” into the environment.

“Intentionally releasing balloons into the atmosphere is nothing short of littering, said Christopher Corchiarino, the commissioner who introduced the bill.

Balloons are the latest in a string of bans that local and state governments have passed in an effort to reduce common sources of litter. Earlier this year, Maryland became the first state to ban the polystyrene foam containers commonly used for food and beverages, following in the footsteps of jurisdictions that make up the Anacostia River watershed.

When they reach Chesapeake Bay waters, these nonbiodegradable materials break into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics. Studies show that fish and oysters can mistake those tiny bits for food, moving chemical-laden plastics into the food chain.

When balloons become litter in the marine environment, they can pose more problems. Their bright colors attract sea turtles, birds and other species that can mistake the balloons for food or nesting supplies. A 2014 photo depicting the skeleton of a critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle found dead on Fisherman Island, VA, with a balloon string hanging out of its mouth was a widely circulated example.

A balloon string hangs out of a wild horse’s mouth on Assateague Island, MD, in this photo by Ann Richardson. “The balloons are no longer pretty when you see them in the middle of a lovely dune or in the mouth of a horse,” Richardson said.In response, laws aimed at plastic litter have been coming in waves, reducing access to foam containers, then plastic straws and now, perhaps, balloons.

“When it comes to trash policy, when one jurisdiction does something, it definitely gets others thinking,” said Ashley Van Stone, executive director of Trash Free Maryland.

Baltimore and Ocean City, MD, already had laws banning balloon releases, but Queen Anne’s is the first countywide law. Falstad said a representative from Harford County has reached out to him with interest in also proposing a ban, and the Ocean City chapter of the Surfrider Foundation is circulating a balloon ban petition for Worcester County.

“We aren’t talking about a child accidentally releasing a balloon,” the petition states. “We want to ban the act of releasing a bunch of balloons on purpose.”

In Pennsylvania, a petition started by an individual to ban balloon and sky lantern releases is close to a goal of 500 signatures before it will be sent to the state’s governor, Tom Wolfe. Virginia has for years had a law prohibiting the release of 50 or more balloons with a civil penalty of $5 per balloon above the allowable limit.

While the law is little-known and rarely enforced, Katie Register, executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways at Longwood University, said it still got results when she called school principals who had been planning a celebratory, end-of-school release.

“When they found out there was a law, they said, ‘That’s it. We won’t do it,’ ” said Register. “Laws, even when they’re not enforced, do modify some peoples’ behavior.”

Last year, the Balloon Council — an industry group representing balloon makers and sellers in the United States that had long fought balloon release bans —
updated its stance from discouraging only certain types of balloon releases to advising against all of them.

“Whether it’s a single balloon or hundreds, let’s keep them from flying away,” the statement says. “Don’t let go: Inflate. Weight. Enjoy.”

Virginia was the first state on the East Coast to create a marine debris reduction plan in 2014, and it has spawned several efforts that have given the state a good grasp of what’s washing up where. For example, volunteers tallied and analyzed 11,441 balloons and balloon-related pieces of litter during four years of monitoring on the state’s remote barrier island beaches, making them the most common type of debris there.

The most common types of balloons they found were those celebrating birthdays, followed by graduations and Mother’s Day. With a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Register led a social marketing effort to reduce balloon releases at weddings. They interviewed brides, wedding planners and vendors to understand what balloon releases symbolized and to suggest alternatives, such as blowing bubbles or planting trees.

That effort is being expanded to address even more occasions this year with a NOAA grant that supports the joint efforts of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia to prevent balloon litter in the mid-Atlantic region. One of their first efforts is to get people in the region to participate in a survey to better understand their views on balloon releases.

The survey asks, among other questions, what participants think happens to balloons once they’re released and reflects choices that are commonly held: They disintegrate in the atmosphere, float into space or break down naturally. (The answer: They fall to the ground or water and break into smaller pieces that persist in the environment instead of breaking down entirely.)

Kimberly Grubert, a coastal planner with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, said the survey will help the coalition of state-based organizations better target their messages to reduce balloon releases. The agency has begun some of its own monitoring efforts and recently found about 20 balloon fragments per mile on a stretch of beach on Assateague Island. But, Grubert added, the volunteers believed visitors who frequent the island had already picked up much of the debris that might concentrate there.

And it’s not just the beaches that are impacted. For the last 20 years, a charter captain out of Ocean City, has been recording the location of every mylar or foil balloon he has come across in the ocean. He has found some nearly 45 miles off the coast. Capt. Mark Sampson’s records indicate he finds an average of 18 mylar balloons per year, mostly in May and June when graduation and wedding releases are popular.

A Facebook group called Blume’s Balloon Round Up also tallies the number of balloons picked up by boat-based and shore cleanups near Ocean City. Their page reports 2,750 balloons so far this year.

The grant to reduce marine debris across the mid-Atlantic will fund balloon awareness efforts over the next three years.

Advocates for balloon release bans say they’re not opposed to balloons, in general, or to “a 6-year-old kid who accidentally releases a balloon at a birthday party,” Falstad said.

Instead, he hopes that laws like the one in Queen Anne’s County spur alternatives to a deliberate, large release.

“We’re one county, but this is a nationwide problem,” he said.

Take the mid-Atlantic balloon release survey at surveygizmo.com/s3/5176323/balloon2.