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Encinitas becomes first city in San Diego County to ban ‘lighter than air’ balloons

The ribbons get wrapped around turtles, around the talons and wings of birds, found in the digestive tracts of wildlife & have other dire consequences for animals.

ENCINITAS, Calif. — Referred to as a zero-waste nightmare, helium-filled balloons are a single-use plastic that is also a major ocean pollutant. To cut down on this waste, the City of Encinitas passed a ban on the sale of lighter-than-air balloons. The San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation was also instrumental in that push.

"We kind of did a spot check on the businesses that were selling the balloons since the ordinance has passed. And the compliance rate was absolutely unbelievable of the different stores that were selling them stopping on their own. A few, it was a corporate decision and needed to have something from the city to cease and desist, which they did," said Mark O'Connor. This Coastal Defender is one of the co-leads on the Rise Above Plastics Committee through the San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

This non-profit is committed to protecting the world's ocean, waves and beaches. If you're in Encinitas, you'll often see Mark picking up single-use plastics and other trash to keep Moonlight Beach clean.

"So, this is pretty typical, a plastic film. I can't tell, looks like some kind of food product might have been in that," said Mark as he pointed out trash found on the Encinitas beach.

One of the biggest pollutants this Surfrider Volunteer has found are balloons. Mark even has a jar of his findings, which he also had on hand when advocating for the ban on helium-filled balloons at an Encinitas City Council meeting. Mark says on average he collects at least one balloon on each of his beach inspections.

"This is my about 190 to 200 balloons. I've lost count now. Yeah, like I said, there's a couple of people that have given them to me too. You can see there is mylar and latex, all the ribbons," said Mark as he showed off the stuffed jar.

Marine conservation organizations and even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] a partner with the Surfrider Foundation, names balloons as a top pollutant that poses harmful consequences for marine life.

"The latex, there are a little heavier and they only hold air for about 24 hours and mylar is like for three weeks. So, it seems to be a little heavier and it gets caught in the seaweed and I don't know what Mother Nature's doing, but it must just finally break free. 95 percent of the latex ones I recover are in the kelp," said O'Connor.

The sight of balloons littering the beach are not just an eye sore. The attached ribbons can get wrapped around sea turtles, around the talons and wings of birds, found in the digestive tracts of wildlife and have other deadly consequences for animals.

As we strolled along the beach, I asked Mark, why does he think the ban on "lighter-than-air" balloons was successful in Encinitas?

"This city council, the people that are here are pretty progressive. They love the marine environment. It's a part of tourism, a part of who we are, its recreation, it provides food," said O'Connor.

While Encinitas is the first city in our county to implement this ban, it sounds like they may not be the last. Mark tells me the Surfrider Foundation has engaged the city council for the City of Solana Beach to push for a similar helium ban. The goal is to start along our coastline and work their way more inland.

But don't get it twisted. This isn't a ban on all balloons. Mark promoted the idea of using air in balloons, rather than lightweight helium. He said when your celebration is over, let the air out and properly dispose of the balloon in the trash.

O'Connor stressed this a push to get businesses, and you, to get creative about how to celebrate in an eco-friendly way.

"If you want to join us, or if you're in a city, or you are part of a city council and you're listening, and you want our help to get this done, you can email rap, rap@surfridersd.org. Tell us who you are, you would like to do, and what city and how you can help, how you want to help and we get those emails out of that account. It'll come to me and I'll email you back or we'll meet for coffee, a phone call or something," said O'Connor.

In a previous Earth 8 story, I covered how helium filled balloons can be transported, due to westerly winds, as far east as the desert here in our county and pose a threat to the wildlife. Mylar balloons are often reported along the hiking trails and the landscape of Borrego Springs. 

There is a petition to push for the ban of lighter-than-air balloons in San Diego County. You can sign up here.

Mark suggests checking out balloonsblow for more eco-friendly ways to celebrate no matter where you live.

*** Special thank you to Janis Jones with the San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation for your photographs used in this story.***

Additionally, if you would like to help and/or volunteer with the San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, just check out their website.

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