Schools have released balloons during elementary science classes and many people release them in remembrance of a loved one. But what happens to those balloons once the helium runs out?
Students Against Balloon Releases, a partnership between Black Swamp Bird Observatory and Benton-Carroll-Salem Schools, is hoping to educate students about the dangers and wastefulness of mass balloon releases and other forms of litter.
Tiffanie Hayes, BSBO Conservation Outreach Specialist, said she too remembers releasing balloons in science class. As she got older, she realized just how dangerous the practice was. “When I was in school, we released balloons as a science project,” Hayes said. “We would write our names and addresses on a postcard and hoped that whoever found our balloons would write back. We would then be able to see how far the balloon went. As I got older, I began to see how dangerous it is to have balloons released into the environment.”
Hayes said she has seen firsthand what the deflated balloons can do. Both she and her daughter, Delaney, have found the balloons in the environment. “We just peeled off a latex balloon from a tree in Magee Marsh,” Hayes said. “It melted onto the tree. Balloons keep changing texture. They just do not go away. They are not biodegradable. They can float 1,000 miles and if they reach the sea, they look like jellyfish to turtles. Turtles that eat them will have their intestines blocked and they will starve to death.”
Hayes also takes issue with Chinese lantern releases, claiming they are dangerous. “In Ohio, you are supposed to have a license to release them and a $1 million insurance policy, but nobody knows it,” she said. “What if one falls down on a barn?”
Hayes said she approached BCS Superintendent Guy Parmigian last year about the planned release of balloons for homecoming.
“I asked him to not release balloons,” Hayes said. “I explained what the environmental impact was. BCS schools are now partners and will be rolling out programs for the elementary and older students explaining the issues around balloons and lantern releases. It is very exciting.”
Starting new partnership
Hayes said she is also hoping to add two art contests to the program. “We would have a contest for the younger students as well as one for older students,” Hayes said. “For the older kids, we may have them compete to illustrate a page in a book I am completing called ‘Critters and Litter’. I am hoping we can have the program grow throughout the state and that other districts locally will join in.”
Parmigian said when he was first approached about the homecoming balloon release, he could not understand what the issue was. “Tiffany (Hayes) called me about the homecoming balloon release at the stadium,” Parmigian said. “Honestly, my first reaction was ‘why shouldn’t we release balloons? What’s the problem?’” After meeting with Hayes a few days later, Parmigian said he now knows what the issues are.
“The balloons and lanterns are dangerous,” Parmigian said. “They litter Magee Marsh and our community. The Mylar balloons can transfer electricity. If they get caught in power lines they can cause a fire.”
The district decided to partner with BSBO after Delaney spoke to the Board Of Education in May, 2013. “Delaney did such a great job that everyone decided that the SABR program was something we wanted to be involved with,” Parmigian said. “She is a very good presenter and she made me and the rest of the board proud to have her as one of our students.”
Parmigian said he is now very excited about the planned educational classes and sees them as a good way to educate students about the environmental and economic impact balloon and lantern releases have in the area. “The classes will allow us to educate students about the human footprint,” he explained. The program is about getting kids thinking about science and technology and how to be responsible citizens in general. Science, math, and social studies will all be combined in the program.”
Parmigian said the program will be a good way to get students thinking about science, math, social policy and politics. “In Ottawa County, tourism is the main industry,” Parmigian explained. “We have to keep the county clean for visitors. There is also a political impact. We host the Biggest Week in Birding and we take that for granted. If our community and the marsh are littered, that may impact the number of visitors who come here. It really is about the economy of the region as well as the environment.”
Kate Zimmerman, BSBO education director, said the group is hoping to hold a couple of classes yet this school year. The program has been stalled a little because of the amount of calamity days the students have had this winter. “We are still in the pilot stage of the program, Zimmerman said. “We hope to get it off the ground in 2014 and we have begun applying for grants. By the 2014-2015 school year, we will begin providing the program free of charge to the district. We believe the program will help satisfy the core curriculum requirements for math and science.”
Zimmerman said she is also hoping the program will be adopted by the state and other districts, but she understands some people will question the issue of releasing balloons and Chinese lanterns.
“We are hoping to educate students and the community about the dangers and wastefulness of balloons and lanterns,” she said. “The program will empower students with the knowledge to educate others about balloons and litter in general. If you get kids connected with nature and the impact they have on it, they may think twice about littering and our ecosystem.”
Zimmerman said she acknowledges that balloon releases are sometimes done in memory of a lost loved one. She said there are other ways, including releasing trained doves into the sky as an alternative to balloons.“This may be a difficult concept to get people to agree with, especially when people have a balloon release for a lost loved one,” Zimmerman explained. “You could plant a bush or a tree in someone’s honor instead of releasing balloons. There are a lot of environmentally friendly ways to honor someone.”
For more information on the program and the alternatives to balloon releases, go to the Black Swamp Bird Observatory website at www.bsbo.org. More information can also be found at www.balloonsblow.org.