GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Letting balloons go into the sky could soon break the law in Michigan.
SB 294, introduced Tuesday by six Senate Democrats, would ban the intentional release of balloons. Thousands of them have ended up in the Great Lakes over the last few years, posing a threat to thousands of species.
The legislation is meant to protect our Great Lakes and the diversity of wildlife inside.
“They’re precious,” said Alan Steinman, Ph.D., with Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. “We value them. Everybody in this state values our Great Lakes. So why do anything with the potential to harm them? They’re iconic, and they’re part of our identity in Michigan.”
If this bill is signed into law, you’ll have to pay up if you’re caught letting a balloon go on purpose. Fines start at $800 and can go up to $5,000.
Those let go for scientific purposes don’t count and neither do hot air balloons.
“I get it that from an entertainment perspective, it’s nice to hold a balloon and have balloons, but you shouldn’t release them,” Steinman said.
They wash up on Great Lakes shores often. In 2019, the nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes found more than 18,000 balloons or balloon pieces along the shores over the previous two years.
“They could go anywhere,” Steinman said. “Of course there’s a lot of surface area to the Great Lakes. So yeah, there’s a strong potential for that to happen.”
It’s already illegal in at least 10 other states.
Steinman explained that the polymers in the balloon’s latex material can be toxic for animals and it can block their digestive system.
“If animals, seabirds are eating them, basically their alimentary canal can get obstructed so they can’t feed,” Steinman explained. “Even if it’s not obstructed, they may eat so much of it that they feel they’re nutritionally saturated, but they’re not getting any nutrition. Their guts are filled, but they’re filled with plastic.”
Once the latex is in their bodies, it can help dangerous substances grow.
“It could be the latex is a better surface to adhere what we call biofilm, microbial communities that attach the slime,” Steinman explained. “That slime ends up bioaccumulating more metals and toxic chemicals.”
Steinman said he supports the legislation. But even if it doesn’t pass, he says it’s a good idea to stop releasing balloons now.
“If you want to celebrate an event, there are alternatives to releasing balloons,” Steinman said. “That would be my recommendation. Whether it’s blowing bubbles or whatever. Plant a tree. However you want to honor, celebrate a person or an event, there are alternatives. Why use an alternative that has potential destruction and impact to our Great Lakes?”
Balloons are far from the only thing scientists are concerned about polluting the Great Lakes. They are also worried about plastic, with huge tons piled up on the shores and deep in the lake.
Steinman said there are more than a billion plastic fragments on Lake Michigan’s surface.
“When we retrieve them, we found that the biofilm that forms on them, bioaccumulates chemicals 380 times more than we find in the water itself,” he explained. “So clearly there’s a major source of accumulation of these nasty chemicals in them.”
With that in mind, he recommends not using plastic bags and switching to something reusable instead.
“Yeah, they’re not going to make a big deal on a one-basis,” he said. “But cumulatively you can make a difference, and you can feel good about helping to protect the environment.”
Democrats introduced a similar bill in 2021, but it went nowhere in a divided state government.
The new bill was introduced by Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, Sen. Sue Shink, D-Northfield Township, Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia and Sen. Kevin Hertel, D-Saint Clair Shores.
It has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Environment.