State Rep. Susan Donovan, a Bristol Democrat whose district includes Portsmouth, has introduced a bill that would ban the intentional release of balloons filled with lighter-than-air-gas, potentially quashing a practice known to weddings, graduations, memorials and other big gatherings.
State Rep. Susan Donovan says she is not trying to rip balloons out of the hands of children.
But in a crusade against plastic pollution that has already taken on disposable shopping bags and straws, the next target looks like large bunches of helium balloons — plastic or latex — released at celebrations and other events.
Donovan, a Bristol Democrat whose district includes Portsmouth, has introduced a bill that would ban the intentional release of balloons filled with lighter-than-air-gas, potentially quashing a practice known to weddings, graduations, memorials and other big gatherings.
Violators caught flouting the ban could be fined $500.
Balloons are “a real environmental hazard,” Donovan told The Journal in a phone interview. “I have seen photographs of what happens to sea life, birds and turtles. Not only do they mistake [balloons] for food, they just die a horrible death.”
In the broader picture, efforts to curb the amount of consumer plastics that find their way into lakes, rivers and the ocean have accelerated in recent years, with several Rhode Island municipalities banning disposable shopping bags. Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration has now come up with a statewide bag ban proposal developed with industry groups.
The conversation around balloons shifted last year when the New Shoreham Town Council banned the sale of balloons on Block Island to help protect wildlife and the environment there.
Donovan’s bill doesn’t go that far. It bans releasing balloons into the sky — or arranging for them to be released — but doesn’t make it illegal to sell or distribute them.
“I’m not looking at banning balloons altogether,” Donovan said. “I don’t want a child not to have a balloon at a parade, but people need to bring it indoors and dispose of if correctly. These balloons can travel many miles.”
Donovan said her bill is modeled after legislation proposed in New Jersey. It includes exemptions for balloons used in scientific research and hot air balloons.
While Block Island already banned the sale of balloons, the Westerly Town Council was slated to discuss draft ordinances dealing with single-use bags, straws, plastic foam containers and balloons.
The environmental group Save The Bay has been advocating for legislation to curb the number of balloons that end up in Rhode Island waterways for some time.
David Prescott, Save The Bay’s South County Coastkeeper, said in 2017 the plastic remains of 835 balloons were picked up during a fall cleanup of the Rhode Island coast, pointing to how serious the problem was.
“There is a lot of movement towards this all over the country,” Prescott said about curbing balloon use.
Gail Mastrati, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Management, said the state single-use plastics task force that recently recommended a state level plastic bag ban, did not study balloons.
“While there was no specific discussion of this issue in the recently released report on single-use plastics, DEM is still examining the bill that was just introduced Friday with the overarching goals of the Plastics Commission in mind,” Mastrati said in an email.
Donovan’s bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.