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Encinitas considers ban on helium-filled balloons

Mark O'Connor discarded balloons jar encinitas.jpg
Alexander Nguyen
Encinitas resident Mark O'Connor holding a jar of discarded balloons he's collected while cleaning up the beach, Oct. 7, 2021.

Most days, you can find Mark O'Connor picking up trash during his daily walks on the beach. And almost always, the retired sheriff's sergeant will find a discarded balloon among the rubbish.

"The last three days in a row, I found one, and I might go for a few days where I don't," he said. "Sometimes they're in a cluster. You find three or four of them together."

Encinitas considers ban on helium-filled balloons
Listen to this story by Alexander Nguyen.

O'Connor has a big plastic jar of balloons he's picked up from his walks to illustrate the problem. It's filled with latex and Mylar balloons. He said the latex balloons not only contribute to the litter but also pose a danger to marine life. That's why O'Connor, Tina Overland, a local surfer, and the Surfrider Foundation are pushing for a lighter-than-air balloon ban in Encinitas.

"A balloon will look like a jellyfish to an animal, so creatures will eat it," O'Connor said. "The ribbons (tied to balloons) are able to get around talons or beaks or wings, preventing an animal of any type from being able to feed itself or maneuver."

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, balloons are the third greatest threat to sea life, after fishing gear and plastic bags and utensils.

However, the Balloon Council, a national association of balloon manufacturers, distributors and retailers, disputes that finding. Lorna O'Hara, the group's executive director, said balloons are no longer on the environmental protection group Ocean Conservancy's list of the top-10 things collected during beach clean-ups.

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"I think it's a matter of educating the public on proper use, and therefore we've mitigated that problem of litter with regard to the sea animals," she said. "We operate with an eye on the environment. But it's really hard to determine when they do a necropsy on these animals that have passed away. You can't pinpoint what was the cause of death that they find 50 things in their stomach. And I have yet to find the case where it's been attributed to a balloon."

O'Connor said the problem of lighter-than-air, or helium-filled balloons, is that they don't remain put. He said Mylar balloons have been found in the middle of the desert in East County. He's also found one floating above the water not too long ago.

"Besides the balloon just being an eyesore if it washes up — and I'll tell you, the good people in this community picked them up," he said. "In 2019, the stats were about 3,170 balloons were documented by clean up."

O'Hara, however, doesn't think a balloon ban is necessary. She thinks the city should institute a balloon-release ban instead.

"It's people's behavior that needs to change. We prefer education over legislation," she said. "Now, the state does have a law, but if they locally pass it and enforce it and let the public remind the public that it exists, that would go a long way."

Since 1990, California has banned the release of Mylar balloons and required them to be weighed down when sold. Still, San Diego Gas & Electric said in the past five years, Mylar balloons have caused more than 500 power outages in the region. That's because the balloon's metallic coating conducts electricity when it comes into contact with power lines, blowing out transformers.

Several cities in California have banned Mylar balloons in their jurisdictions, including Malibu, Glendale and Hermosa Beach. Since May, the Surfrider Foundation has been pushing to ban both latex and Mylar balloons in Encinitas.

The city's Environmental Commission has drafted the ordinance and is asking for the public's inputs. Residents can email the Commission at BalloonOrdinance@encinitasca.gov by 5 p.m. Friday with their comments.

The Commission is slated to vote Oct. 14 whether to move the ordinance to the City Council for consideration. If passed, Encinitas could become one of the first cities in the state to ban all lighter-than-air balloons.

Encinitas considering banning helium-filled balloons in the city