Floating The Notion: Councilman and Committee Continue To Support Helium Balloon Ban

Discussion of a helium balloon ban continued in Southampton this week.

If you’ve ever seen a small whale tangled in a balloon, “it’s heartbreaking.” Southampton Town Councilman John Bouvier recounted the experience, speaking of swimming in Pacific gyres — waters that span from the West Coast to Japan — and seeing plastic trash, mostly composed of balloons.

Legislation he’ll sponsor banning the sale of helium balloons could land in Southampton Town Hall soon. Southampton has always been a role model for other jurisdictions, Mr. Bouvier noted during a March 4 Town Board work session discussion of the initiative. If the town takes the lead on this measure, perhaps others in the region will follow suit.

A number of Massachusetts municipalities have enacted bans comparable to the one under consideration in Southampton, Tip Brolin, a member of the town’s Sustainability Committee explained. Each one he’d contacted offered positive public feedback, he said. Provincetown has had a ban in effect since the 1990s.

Mr. Brolin last lobbied the board for a ban of balloons using “lighter than air” gas, like helium, in November. At the time, board members, led by Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, expressed concern for the ban’s potential impact on the area’s small businesses. The COVID -19 pandemic had already hit them hard, he emphasized. Considering a survey that saw 66 percent of respondents in favor of a helium balloon ban, “I can’t ignore that,” Mr. Schneiderman said. Still he and other board members asked Mr. Brolin and his group to get specific reaction from town businesses that sell helium-filled balloons.

Mr. Brolin reported that his committee visited 18 local businesses with mixed results. Ten responded, with four either supporting or offering no objection to the proposal, and six opposed to losing business. Councilman Rick Martel suggested there are more than 18 businesses townwide that sell helium balloons. Still, he said he would likely weigh in on the side of the environment.

The impact balloons have on the environment was one of the prime reasons for calling for the ban. Balloons are litter. Mr. Brolin noted that more than 85,000 helium filled balloons are used once and discarded in the town. Even biodegradable balloons take years to break down, while Mylar balloons never do, he said. The discarded balloons get into the ocean and waterways and kill sea creatures. Additionally, helium is a finite resource used in medical application such as MRIs.

Mr. Brolin also provided statistics related to the hazards that Mylar balloons, which conduct electricity, pose to the electrical system. In Glendale, California, for example, they have an average of 14 electrical outages per year due to balloons tangling in transmission equipment. An outage in Southampton Village in 2017 was attributed to balloons and PSEG reported five outages in its coverage area caused by balloons in 2020.

Suffolk County enacted a ban on the release of helium balloons in 2019. Councilman Martel said he wished the county had taken up the overall ban, since it’s a regional issue. Councilwoman Julie Lofstad made note that if a person couldn’t get the balloons in Hampton Bays, “They’ll just run to Riverhead.” She said she’s not comfortable taking the action when businesses are just getting back on their feet.

A commencement date of January 2022, was mentioned during the discussion, though Mr. Bouvier and Mr. Brolin said that could easily be put off. By January 2022, life may be back to normal, post-pandemic, and, said the supervisor, “People could celebrate, just not with balloons.”