Chex the sea turtle had a peculiar problem.
At just under 3 pounds, the wild juvenile green sea turtle was buoyant and struggling to dive or swim
It was a crisp spring day in March 2017 when Chex was found floating helplessly near Redington Pier.
Researchers at Clearwater Marine Aquarium brought Chex to their facility, where they did bloodwork, gave him vitamins and took X-rays. All seemed fine, but still, Chex couldn’t swim right.
It wasn’t until 19 days after the rescue that researchers discovered the problem: Chex began defecating a balloon and ribbon three times the length of his body. He had mistaken a balloon for food, and it nearly killed him.
Chex is one of many wild Florida animals harmed by the estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic, including balloons, entering Earth’s oceans each year. What goes up must come down, and when a balloon is released, it can travel hundreds of miles before finally falling back to earth.
The ballooning problem is not exclusive to the sea: The debris also harms animals on land, as the deflated trash threatens creatures such as cattle that can mistake balloons for food.
This environmental hazard is one of the main reasons why a bill introduced by a St. Pete Beach lawmaker is floating its way through the legislative session this year. The measure would make it illegal to intentionally release a balloon, and perpetrators could be hit with a fine of up to $150 if they’re caught. Under current law, it’s illegal to release more than 10 balloons within a 24-hour period.
If the bill became law, balloons would be considered litter, according to the bill’s house sponsor, Rep. Linda Chaney, a Republican representing southern Pinellas County.
“Balloons don’t go to heaven,” Chaney said in an interview. “There’s no good reason to release a balloon, and there’s a lot of reasons not to release a balloon. They’re harmful.”
This is Chaney’s second attempt to get the bill passed after an initial version died in its first committee stop last year. There are a few key differences with this year’s bill: For one, penalties would be allowed under Florida littering laws. Second, the bill removes a loophole that allows the release of biodegradable balloons, which can still cause harm to the environment, Chaney said.
The senate sponsor is Sen. Nick DiCeglie, a St. Petersburg Republican.
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Chaney referred to her legislation as a “PR” or public relations bill — in other words, she said, it’s less about actually fining people, and more about changing behavior.
“I see this bill as an opportunity to educate the community, change the culture, and hopefully, in a broader sense, stop people from littering,” she said.
Environmental advocates who support the measure say a balloon ban would ignite those conversations while also protecting Florida wildlife.
“I’ve talked to offshore charter fishermen that are constantly scooping balloons out of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. And I’ve even talked to duck hunters who take folks out to ranches in the middle of our state that are pulling balloons out of our environment,” said Hunter Miller, the field campaigns manager for Oceana, an ocean conservation nonprofit.
“To me, this is a commonsense bill that says we shouldn’t be intentionally littering,” Miller said.
The list of lobbyists for Chaney’s bill spans several industries, from ranching to tourism, including the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Airports Council. Nonprofit groups including the Sierra Club, the Humane Society and the Surfrider Foundation are advocating for the bill, according to lobbyist disclosure forms.
Florida faces a surge of environmental threats, from pollution spewing into waterways to biodiversity loss from human development. While those issues also need to be addressed, the groups supporting Chaney’s bill agree banning balloon releases is a simple change that could make a quick impact.
Chaney said she visited the veterinarian school at the University of Florida, where employees told her they do surgeries on livestock “on a regular basis” to remove balloons from the animals’ intestines. A spokesperson for the school could not immediately provide data about the scope of the problem.
But anecdotal evidence of balloons’ harm to wildlife isn’t hard to find, particularly in Florida. An image from the state’s wildlife agency shows a sea turtle hatchling swimming next to two deflated balloons and their tangle of ribbon.
The image, which has been used for years to communicate how balloons threaten wildlife, was taken on a state research vessel about 40 miles off Sarasota in 2009, according to spokesperson Kelly Richmond.
Alternative solutions to balloon releases
Up and down the shorelines of Florida’s Gulf Coast, balloon releases are used in memorials to honor loved ones.
Instead of releasing balloons to honor the memory of somebody’s life, advocacy groups suggest more sustainable options like planting a native tree or flower garden. A Jensen Beach-based nonprofit that advocates for environmentally friendly alternatives also suggests using kites, colorful streamers, flags or banners during a memorial event in lieu of a balloon release.
The group said other options like paper lantern releases or releasing a dove can have unintentional environmental consequences, and those methods should be avoided.
Though people have historically used balloons to express their love for others, a memorial like planting a tree will not only help the planet but it will also endure for years, Miller said.
“It’s something that’s permanent, something that’s going to be there for generations to come,” he said. “Something you can revisit.”