Posted on February 27, 2023
Environmentalists celebrate in Laguna Beach – but not with balloons.
The hilly coastal town known for stunning sea views and rolling cliffs is considering a plan to ban the sale and public use of balloons to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires and clean up a major source of rubbish that burns nearby of the scenic coasts of the community floats.
The Laguna Beach City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal to publicly ban the popular mainstay of birthday and graduation parties, whether inflated with helium or not. The move to the community of 23,000 comes as several California beach towns have capped balloons and the state enacted legislation to regulate the types of foils.
“This is the start,” said Chad Nelsen, executive director of environmental nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, adding that he sees a momentum in weeding out balloons that tangle with turtles and sea lions, much like he’s done with the effort to single-use balloons to phase out plastic bags. “We’re hacking away all these things that we find and trying to clean up the ocean bit by bit.”
Environmentalists are targeting balloons, arguing they are a preventable cause of coastal pollution that threatens wildlife and seabirds. Balloon debris can entangle wildlife or be swallowed by animals mistaking it for food, and more than 3,000 balloon debris were picked up from ocean beaches by volunteers in Virginia over a five-year period, according to the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration.
In California, firefighters have long warned of foil balloons tangling on power lines, causing a power outage and a potential fire hazard. Southern California Edison, one of the state’s largest electric utilities, reported more than 1,000 foil balloon-related power outages in 2017, affecting more than 1 million customers, according to a state law analysis.
But pro-coastal advocates want legislation that addresses balloon debris in addition to fire risk. Coastal communities in Florida, Delaware and New York have passed rules aimed at curbing air pollution from balloons. Several in Southern California have taken similar steps. The city of Manhattan Beach has banned foil balloons on public property and the mass release of latex balloons, while two San Diego County beach cities have banned balloons filled with a lighter-than-air gas.
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Officials in Laguna Beach, which has miles of pristine shorelines and hilltop neighborhoods threatened by wildfires, have long debated the idea. Lawmakers held a first unanimous vote in January to phase out public use of all balloons, with a second and final vote scheduled for Tuesday.
Balloons can still be used by residents at home, Mayor Bob Whalen said.
“Even balloon advocates and the balloon industry weren’t opposed to banning them on the beach,” Whalen said, adding that the city was addressing the issue to both reduce the risk of fires and marine life along the roughly six Miles (10 km) of shoreline. “There will be some impact on the local distribution of balloons, but like I said, people will still find places to buy balloons.”
Treb Heining, who started selling balloons at Disneyland at the age of 15 and now works internationally in the balloon industry more than 50 years later, said balloons bring happiness to the world.
“All my life I have seen enthusiastic children – of all ages. You can still be a kid at 90,” he said.
Heining said Laguna Beach officials would not come to the table for a compromise. He proposed banning portable helium tanks to the public, preventing balloon deflation, and banning balloons on the beach, rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach.
“They’re doing everything they can to make balloons this nasty, horrible thing. And they don’t,” he said.
Supporters of the move include environmentalists, whale watch groups and a marine mammal organization, who reported seeing a sea lion die of starvation after debris, including balloon fragments, got stuck in its digestive tract.
“Here is another opportunity to stand boldly and on the right side of an issue,” resident Mark Christy wrote in a letter to the council last month.
Cheryl McKinney, the owner of a party supplies company, opposed the idea, saying it would beat the state economically and responsible business owners encourage customers to weight the balloons and dispose of them properly.
“We always refer our customers to this motto: ‘Don’t let go. Weight. Inflation. Enjoy.’” she wrote.