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What goes up must come down: balloon waste on Great Lakes shorelines

Balloons are a part of many American traditions: birthdays, graduations, retirements, weddings. It’s easy to forget these balloons once they float away, but what goes up, must come down. And pieces of balloon waste are coming down all around the Great Lakes.

Detroit Free Press reporter Keith Matheny wrote about the problems caused by balloon litter in a recent article. His interest in the topic was piqued in part by the research of Lara O'Brien, a grad student at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.

Matheny reported that surveys done by the Alliance for the Great Lakes had found 18,000 pieces of balloon waste on Great Lakes shorelines. This can cause serious problems for wildlife. According to Matheny, birds and mammals see the bright colors of balloons and ribbon and think of them as food. This can lead to choking and digestion problems, and often death.

“This hasn’t been an issue that has yet gotten into people’s consciousness," Matheny said.

O’Brien is researching a solution to these problems. The first step is getting more data on how much balloon waste is out there. O'Brien recently developed a survey to engage citizen scientists in gathering that data. It allows anyone to record the location of balloon debris they find along the Great Lakes. O'Brien says she hopes the data can be used to push for policies that tackle balloon waste, and encourage people to stop releasing balloons for celebrations.

“There are so many different alternatives that could be out there, blowing bubbles, planting trees, spreading wildflowers,” O’Brien said.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Anna Schlutt.

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