“Last summer three of us spent about 5 hours on a remote barrier island off Virginia’s coast and picked up more than 300 balloons and ribbons – a real eye-opener!” said Laura McKay, Virginia CZM Program Manager. Clean-up events just in Virginia from 2010-2014 documented almost 5,000 pieces of balloon litter.
In 2013 the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program held a marine debris summit which led to the creation of a Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan.
The program and its partners quickly zeroed in on the deadliest debris to marine wildlife and balloons were an obvious target. Balloon litter poses one of the greatest risks to marine animals in terms of ingestion and entanglement. Balloons are mistaken for food such as jellyfish by sea turtles; the ribbons on balloons are a major entanglement threat to birds and other animals on land and on the sea.
Our first step was to conduct research to better understand who plans balloon release events – and, most importantly, why. Katie Register, Director of Clean Virginia Waterways and co-lead of this effort noted that, “Weddings are of course happy occasions. Balloon releases are also planned for sad events, like memorials. Doing this research was necessary to inform what we hope will be a series of successful campaign and education efforts to reduce balloon releases and litter.”
The Joyful Send-off campaign was launched in August 2017. Before launching the campaign, it was important that the partners speak with and listen to brides about what a wedding send-off ceremony means to them. The campaign encourages send-off activities that provide memorable, joyful, picture-perfect, and litter-free alternatives to balloon releases. “We hope that brides and grooms will learn that all released balloons become litter, and will not organize or participate in a balloon release in the years to come,” said Virginia Witmer, Virginia CZM Outreach Coordinator.
Joyful Send-off is a project of the Virginia CZM Program funded through grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program and Office of Coastal Management and with technical and financial support from Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University, as well as contributions from many others.