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Climate and Environment

Balloons Have Become An Environmental Nuisance. Laguna Beach Is Poised To Ban Them

balloons with stars and stripes, and blue, red and white stars, are outlined against a bright blue sky
Balloons: Common party prop, but also an environmental scourge.
(Tom Dahm
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When I think of balloons, I think of the movies Up and Le Ballon Rouge. But the future does not look bright for those round, floating, balls of multicolored happiness.

California legislators have recently enacted restrictions on balloons, and, city after city have added their own in the last few years. The newest one: A proposal to severely limit the use and sale of all balloons in the beachfront city of Laguna Beach is up for a vote by the city council next Tuesday.

The council approved the measure unanimously in a preliminary vote last month. The idea for a ban was begun by an ocean conservation activist and is supported by several environmental groups.

What's the problem with balloons?

Southern California Edison said balloons contributed to over 1,000 power outages, on average, between 2015 and 2020. In 2020 alone, outages related to metallic balloons affected more than one million SCE customers. Metallic balloons are made up of foil or Mylar, and conduct electricity.

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The sad reality is that all balloons, no matter how festive, end up as trash that buyers often fail to dispose of properly, or allow to float away. The remnants end up being eaten by wildlife and harming it. 

According to Surfrider, the ocean conservation group, “[Balloons] along with strings and gender reveal confetti, pose multiple threats to the beach environment, animals, and sea life and humans.” And when people accidentally release balloons, or don’t bother to dispose of them properly, the city (and its tax money) has to clean up that beach litter.

Would the Laguna Beach ban be the first?

The cities of Glendale and Hermosa Beach ban the sale of metallic balloons capable of floating away, and Encinitas banned the sale of helium-filled balloons in January 2022.

Laguna Beach is poised to see those bans and raise them. The Laguna Beach city council is expected to vote this coming Tuesday on a ban of sales of all balloons, latex and metallic, as well as a ban on the flying of balloons at public places like parks, beaches, and streets. People would be fined for violation of the law. Balloons could still be flown in private and commercial spaces.

The proposal’s details could change as the council debates it next week. But no council member opposed the plan at a January 24 council meeting. At that meeting elected officials and staff talked about giving businesses in the city most of the rest of the year to phase out sales as well as setting aside public funds to communicate to the public.

Whose balloons get popped?

The balloon sales ban would only affect Laguna Beach sales. Balloon sales outside the city would continue in whatever jurisdictions still allow them. So Laguna Beach balloon retailers have voiced their displeasure.

“We believe the impact does not match the intent,” Tim James of the California Grocers Association told the council on January 24. He said the ordinances would create “unintended consequences for Laguna Beach grocers while rewarding retailers not located within the city.”

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That includes online retailers, too, like Amazon.

What about allowing balloons that don’t float away?

That’s something Glendale built into their ban. The city allows the use of metallic balloons that don’t float away — in other words, those filled with plain old air — and that are attached to a pole or structure.

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law last year Assembly Bill 847 which requires a warning on balloons of their danger and the testing of metallic balloons that don’t cause electrical short circuiting on power lines in order to phase them into the consumer market.

In public comment at the Laguna Beach City Council meeting, one speaker talked about helping out beach clean ups and more often than not finding pieces of foil balloons and other trash from gender reveal celebrations.

Bans are also not the only cloud on the balloon's ample horizon. One of the biggest suppliers of balloons, Party City, filed for bankruptcy in January. As Marketplace has reported, before the pandemic, a full tank of helium could cost a retailer $195. Now, it’s $350.

And the floating balloon’s future may be sealed by U.S. helium supply disruptions in the near future.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

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