Focusing One Eager Eye On The Sky, Board Mulls Balloon Ban

Southampton Town officials are pondering a ban on the sale of gas-filled balloons.

Two-thirds of last winter’s Southampton Town survey respondents felt the sale of balloons filled with lighter than air gas, including helium, should be banned.

Members of the Town Board took up the question again during their November 19 work session. By discussion’s end, unlike balloons that deflate, fall and turn to trash, the question continued to hang in the air.

The recommendation to ban balloon sales was first floated by the town’s Sustainability Committee. Town officials suggested they craft a poll to gauge public sentiment.

The February 2020 poll asked whether the town should prohibit the sale, distribution and release of any type of balloon filled with lighter than air gas, including helium balloons. Of the 988 respondents, 656 said “yes,” while 332 said “no”.

A member of the Sustainability Committee, Tip Brolin, appeared before the Southampton Town Board last week offering support for the notion of a sale ban.

If the sale of helium balloons is banned townwide, what’s to keep shoppers from simply heading into Southampton Village or to Riverhead to buy the balloons there? That was a top query posited by lawmakers.

Supervisor Jay Schneiderman wondered whether an interim measure, rather than a wholesale ban, might be more effective. “Banning the sale is a big deal,” the supervisor opined. What if those who sell the balloons affix some sort of weight to them so they can’t accidentally escape their owner?

The Town Board banned the intentional release of balloons in June 2019. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone signed a similar ban on the intentional release of balloons into law a year ago September. However, it appears they continue to make their way onto area beaches and water bodies.

Mr. Schneiderman wondered if there was any truth to the idea that a large percentage of balloons on Southampton Town beaches come from elsewhere.

Sometimes they fall into the ocean, Councilman John Bouvier reminded. Balloon material is consumed by wildlife and “ends up in your food, ends up in your fish,” Mr. Bouvier said.

The legislative intent of the county’s ban on intentional balloon releases describe balloons as “the most common form of floating garbage and flotsam within 200 miles of the shore [of Long island].” The law states, “the effect that this pollution has on marine life is incalculable.”

Mr. Brolin expressed doubt that such figures tracing a balloon’s origins could be accurately obtained. He noted that balloons don’t go up for long before they burst and fall.
Councilman Rick Martel questioned the assertion. His research indicated a Mylar balloon can travel up to 1,000 miles.

Beyond the deleterious effect balloon trash has on the environment, helium, a gas used to inflate the balloons is a limited resource, work session participants acknowledged. It’s a critical substance used in scientific research and certain technologies, particularly MRI scanners.

“This is a noble pursuit,” the supervisor said of a potential ban. And while he appreciates the idea of being on the leading edge of environmental protection efforts, he admitted, “I’m wrestling with this.” Every childhood memory, every birthday, there was a helium balloon, the lawmaker related. “I’m struggling to see if there’s an interim step.” By the same token, he asserted, “Anybody who releases a balloon intentionally should be ashamed of themselves.”

Still, he was concerned about the impact of the ban on businesses that sell the balloons.

“We need a bigger effort on this,” Councilman Martel said, arguing that, to be effective, any ban should be county-wide.

Mr. Brolin said he understood concerns about a ban and its fiscal effects “particularly in a time of COVID.” He said he’d go back to the committee and see what members might want to do next.