CLEVELAND — Cleveland took another step forward on Wednesday in joining the city of Toledo as the City Council’s Safety Committee moved ahead with legislation outlawing large balloon releases citywide. Prompted by continued issues with mylar balloons causing power outages as well as the impact that balloons have on area wildlife, the ordinance would make the release of 10 or more balloons a minor misdemeanor.
The balloon release legislation was proposed in November 2021 and was heard by the council’s safety committee on Wednesday morning. Ward 16 Councilman Brian Kazy, who co-sponsored the proposed ordinance, said it was prompted by an increasing number of instances of balloons causing localized power outages.
“Not only do they end up in our lakes and our rivers and our parks but they also end up in our utility lines,” Kazy said. “The balloons get stuck in our utility lines. They end up knocking against our transformers or they just end up hitting the connectors in a certain way and causing power outages. We’ve seen this as an increase in the utility department.”
There is an environmental component to the legislation as well. Between 2016 and 2018, more than 18,000 balloons or balloon pieces were collected during Alliance of the Great Lakes beach clean-up events.
Tim Jasinski, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist at the Lake Erie Science and Nature Center, has seen first-hand the devastating impact that balloons have on wildlife around the Great Lakes. From exotic coastal birds to common seagulls, the balloons and balloon pieces can cause significant intestinal issues.
“It’s a huge problem and what I’ve found talking to the public is that most people don’t realize that it’s trash,” Jasinski said. “Birds grab a balloon and swallow it thinking it’s food. The line is attached to it and that causes intestinal issues. They also get wrapped in it.”
Jasinski pulled out a large fish aquarium full of string and other debris that he and other staff members have collected from birds and other wildlife over the years, including a long wooden stake, a small animal trap, and a large section of nylon mesh.
And, of course, balloon string.
“There is no difference if you went to the store, bought a bunch of balloons and tied a string to it and threw in the water, lake or the ground versus letting them go in the air. One is just prettier,” Jasinski said. “It’s all trash.”
Over the years, Jasinski said he and other wildlife rehab experts have intently tried to educate the public on the hazards of balloon releases. However, the reason why most balloon releases occur is often a challenging aspect to overcome, he said.
“Most of the time, it’s for the mourning of someone so it’s a very sad situation,” Jasinski said. “They lost a family member or a loved one. When you try to educate someone that [balloon releases are not] the right thing, it’s the worst time to do that.”
Under the proposed ordinance, violators would be subject to a minor misdemeanor — the equivalent of a ticket — and would have a $150 fine. Kazy said the ordinance is a good first step without being too overbearing.
“This is a good start. I think [banning the release of 10 or more balloons] stops what we would consider to be 'balloon releases' in the city of Cleveland as opposed to a kid having a birthday party in his backyard and somebody cuts a string and a balloon ends up in the air,” Kazy said.
Newly-elected Ward 7 Councilwoman Stephanie Howse pointed out that balloon releases are a common cultural practice. Although she said she agrees with the intent and spirit of the proposed ordinance, the city needs to provide more education before the ordinance takes effect.
“You are going to penalize people for embracing cultural practices without engagement or thinking about other alternatives… so you just don’t want people to celebrate the way they celebrate. What are people supposed to do?” Howse said. “I guess that’s a conversation and a thought process.”
The proposed ordinance is an important first step and, hopefully, one of many, Jasinski said.
“Absolutely it’s a good starting point, sure," she said. "Any part of removing that as being legal is going to be great. Ten [balloons] is still an issue but obviously, 1,000 is a bigger issue. This is an obvious, quick, easy way to help.”