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After Plastic Straws, Are Balloons Next to Go?

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Multicolored balloons flying to the sky. Jakkree Thampitakkull / Getty Images

We get it. Balloons are fun and make great decorations. But we hate to burst your bubble—balloons can be a big problem when they are deliberately released into the environment.

The litter is not only a blight on landscapes, waterways, trees and power lines, but balloons and balloon strings can entangle, choke or kill marine life and other animals. That's not to mention the wasteful use of helium, a non-renewable resource.


The Associated Press reported Wednesday that much like recent efforts to ban plastic straws and plastic bags, balloons could similarly be on the way out as the general public becomes more environmentally conscious.

"The issue of straws has really broadened the marine debris issue," Emma Tonge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the AP.

Recently, South Carolina's Clemson University decision last month to end its 30-year football gameday tradition of releasing 10,000 balloons into the air. Earlier this year, New Shoreham, an island town in Rhode Island, outright banned the sale, use and distribution of balloons.

Releasing balloons is not just an environmental problem, it could also be illegal. States such as California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia as well as a number of U.S. cities already have laws that restrict launches.

Balloons are usually made of latex, which is considered biodegradable. However, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) pointed out on a web post that it can take months or years for the rubber to break down, meaning animals have plenty of time to come in contact with the debris.

"There's an awful lot of confusion over balloons especially what they're made of and how they break down," said MCS Pollution Campaigns Officer Emma Cunningham in the post. "Some people believe that because latex is natural balloons made of it are harmless once let go. This just isn't the case. Latex may last for up to four years in the marine environment."

Balloons made of other materials such as Mylar can last even longer in the environment because they are made of plastic, which never fully degrades. Not only that, California's Pacific Gas & Electric reported that metallic balloons caused 203 power outages in the first five months of 2018, up 22 percent from the year prior, according to the AP.

Even the Balloon Council, which represents retailers, distributors and manufacturers, established "Smart Balloon Practices" to educate consumers on the proper handling of balloons and to stress the importance of never releasing helium-filled foil balloons.

In 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife posted an article that advocated for alternatives to balloon releases and included photos of balloon litter impacting wildlife, including a bird strangled by a balloon string and a dead sea turtle that ingested a balloon.

"The pictures are hard to look at," the post states, "but they make clearer than any words why we all should find alternatives to letting a balloon go."

Pamela Denmon, USFWS

USFWS Eastern Shore of VA and Fisherman Island NWR

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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