Website tracks balloon debris in the Great Lakes


Balloon debris found in the Great Lakes since June 1st, 2019. Image:

By Tasia Bass

A university researcher is tracking balloon litter in the Great Lakes region to spread awareness of how it harms the environment.

Lara O’Brien, a master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, created to help citizen scientists track where popular balloon launches end. It maps where the balloons are found and allows people to submit photos of the debris.

“My hope is that by engaging and participating in this citizen science research, more people will become aware of the impact balloon releases have on the environment,” O’Brien said.

Balloon litter is dangerous to wildlife that can get tangled in or eat it. Most balloons are not biodegradable and the ones that are usually take years to break down, O’Brien said. According to the University of Tasmania, balloons are 32 times more likely to kill than hard plastics that wildlife may eat.

O’Brien said she was horrified to see balloons released for celebrations and decided to take action.

“I am sure these groups have good intentions behind their actions,” she said. “However, every single one of the balloons they release eventually ends up as litter polluting oceans, lakes, rivers, forests and other natural areas.”

Since June, when the survey began, the site has catalogued over 900 pieces of balloon debris and litter, including latex plastic balloons, ribbons and Mylar balloon pieces. One person found 85 pieces of balloon debris while taking a 2-mile walk in the Indiana Dunes National Park, O’Brien said. Photos have been submitted to the survey showing balloons on beaches, tangled in trees and underwater.

O’Brien said she hopes her site brings awareness to the dangers of balloon releases, used to celebrate events like graduation and baby showers. States that have already banned balloon releases include California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia.

She hopes the states surrounding the Great Lakes are next and wants the University of Michigan to ban balloon releases on campus and for state lawmakers to follow and introduce bills prohibiting the release of balloons in Michigan.

“With a little awareness, people can change their behavior, deciding not to release balloons and instead, start using eco-friendly alternatives.” O’Brien said.

The site lists alternatives to balloon releases, including blowing bubbles and planting trees. It provides information on how to get involved in helping to clean up the Great Lakes and links to organizations with a mission to end pollution in the Great Lakes.

5 thoughts on “Website tracks balloon debris in the Great Lakes

  1. Balloon litter is “deadly” for boaters. It can plug an engine water intake OR it can wrap itself around the propeller. Both of which will kill a boat’s engine. In calm water this is a damned inconvenience as one has to dive to eliminate the problem. In rough weather it incapacitates the boat which can no longer make it into a safe harbor. This could cause loss of boat and/or life. Let’s end this needless balloon waste (expletive deleted) !

  2. I’ve found at least three dozen balloons while hiking the Buckeye Trail around Ohio just this year alone.

    If I’ve found that many along such a narrow track, how many must there be out there in the woods?

    I even found one in my woods just yesterday.

  3. Another reason to add to ending balloon releases, the world’s helium supply is rapidly being depleted. Helium is a vital element for our technological world and it cannot be replaced or manufactured when it is gone.

  4. It IS around Lansing, and also places not tracked. People have known about this for so many years, yet they have balloon releases – out of sight, out of mind? Where do they think they end up, in balloon heaven??

  5. …….. worked the Beach in Saugatuck MI. for years , never a week would go by that I didn’t see ribbons and balloons wash up or had “landed” ? on our large beach and wooded sand dunes. Lots of them branded at “Party Store” locations around the Chicago area.

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