There’s hardly a day when I’m fishing on Lake Michigan that one of the people fishing with me doesn’t point off in one direction or another and ask, “What’s that floating over there?” More often than not, it’s a balloon. If I can make the turn, I adjust my course and scoop up the derelict floaters.
A few decades ago I’d frequently find “science” balloons floating in the lake. These weren’t spent weather balloons sent aloft by atmospheric scientists, though there’s probably more than a few of those crash landed in the Great Lakes. The balloons I used to find were launched by grade school “scientists.”
I’d spot a balloon and if I could scoop it up and if it was fresh enough, there would be a string and note attached, usually asking the finder to notify a specific school kid at the address of his or her school. I guessed the teacher was conducting a lesson to demonstrate wind or weather patterns to the students. Perhaps it was just a contest where the sender of the farthest-flying balloon would win a prize. When I’d find these balloons, I’d dry out, then mail in the card though most of the schools were fairly local to area where I was fishing.
When someone on my boat these days spots a floating balloon I still make an effort to scoop it up. Now, however, instead of the latex balloons floating as the result of a school project, it’s more likely to be a balloon made from mylar (or similar) material, left over or lost from a grade schoolers birthday party — or a wedding, or parade or most any sort of celebration. Selling these foil and polyester, helium-filled bubbles is big business. One chain, Party City, has over 800 stores, nationwide.
I’m not a balloon scientist, but I know enough about physics and chemistry to understand why spent balloons crashing to earth is probably more of a problem on the Great Lakes than free floating balloons descending elsewhere.
Most of the time, when people are celebrating outside by wielding helium balloons, it’s warm weather. In spring and summer the land is warmer than the water in the lake making the air over the lakes cooler than the air over the land. Yadda, yadda, insert some science garble here — the balloons become less buoyant in the cold air over the lakes and “splashdown!”
Litter anywhere isn’t good. The grade school teacher leading his or her little kidlets out to the school yard to launch their balloons should have realized the bulk of the balloons weren’t going to be recovered and those not found and retrieved were destined to become litter.
In defense of the teachers, all of the school-program balloons I ever found were latex balloons and latex balloons (compared to mylar) do biodegrade eventually. One source compared a latex balloon, turned litter, decomposes at a rate similar to an oak leaf — about four years. That’s still four years it remains in the environment as some sort of litter and able to clog up turtles, fish or animals who mistakenly eat it.
Mylar is plastic-based and may take decades to degrade and before it does it’s apt to be eroded into ever-smaller chunks and pieces, eventually becoming micro-plastics. Even if the mylar balloon debris crashes on land, once it breaks up to become “micro” it can float along with storm water, into streams and eventually into the lakes, into drinking water and eventually into beer brewed with lake water.
Lara O’Brien, a student at the University of Michigan’s School for the Environment and Sustainability was alerted to the problem when she saw helium balloons released at celebrations on purpose and was aware that many more are floated aloft accidentally or on purpose, once the need for the balloon was past.
To raise awareness of the problem, she started a website: www.BalloonDebris.org. The map shown here depicts the location of dead balloons found along the Great Lakes (and reported) just since June of this year. Another website with more information about balloon debris is www.balloonsblow.org.
While the awareness of balloon litter is growing, balloon releases are still common at weddings, graduations, birthdays, memorials, and other events to the point several states (California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia) have passed laws banning balloon releases.
Even though I get a first hand view of the problem most days I go fishing, I’m not sure our state’s legislature needs to spend much time on the issue. Better, is for all of us to be aware, spread the word and make sure any balloons in your future are handled with care and disposed of properly.