JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — We often see balloon releases used to celebrate an achievement or to honor a loved one.
It may soon be illegal to release balloons altogether in Jacksonville. Jacksonville City Councilman Rory Diamond proposed a bill at the city council meeting Tuesday night that would ban releasing balloons and sky lanterns.
"Look at this beautiful beach," Diamond said, gesturing to the beach behind him as he talked to On Your Side's Kailey Tracy at Neptune Beach. "It's absolutely pristine. There's nothing worse than seeing liter out there. There's nothing worse than seeing birds with strings around their necks or turtles that don’t make it to the ocean, so this bill will help prevent all that" he said.
Jen Lomberk, the executive director of the Matanzas Riverkeeper, said they regularly find balloons during their beach and water cleanups.
"It's always disappointing to find balloons because a lot of times they are intentionally being released," she said. "And balloons are actually a pretty big threat to wildlife when they end up in our waterways or international areas because popped balloons actually look a lot like jellyfish when they're floating around in the water" she said.
"So, they'll get consumed by sea turtles and birds and manatees, and a lot of times, that means that they'll get stuck in the animal's throat or in their digestive system, which can cause a choking hazard. They can also cause entanglement issues leading to the death of an animal," Lomberk said.
State law says releasing 10 or more balloons within a 24-hour-period is punishable with a $250 fine.
Diamond writes in the proposed bill's text sky lanterns could also pose a danger to the public's safety due to an unpredictable flight path. This could potentially start a fire upon the lantern's landing, he said.
St. Johns County banned the lanterns earlier this year due to possible fires.
"Once places started to realize that there was this weird loophole in the state law and that local governments had the authority to pass ordinances like this, I think that it started to gain traction and people started to think, 'well, why don't we have an ordinance like this,'" Lomberk said.
Diamond said if the bill is approved in Jacksonville, it'll be the same penalty as littering, which is $50 for the first offense.
"There won't be like a balloon police, but it is the same as anything else out here at the beaches. We've got our three beach police departments. You've got JSO and when you see a bunch of people out there about to release a whole bunch of lanterns with fire in them, they can say, 'listen, that's against the law. Please don't do that,'" Diamond said.
Lomberk said the Riverkeeper and other nonprofits have worked with local governments on balloon bans.
“It really is just organized littering because what goes up must come down. So, we always try to encourage people to choose another way to recognize an event like planting a tree or donating to a cause or an organization that the person cared about," Lomberk said.
According to Lomberk, there's a common misconception about biodegradable balloons. Some people think that because a balloon is made from latex, it will decompose and won't cause any harm.
"That is not the case," she said.
"Even though some balloons are made from latex from rubber trees, that latex is treated with chemicals and plasticizers to make the final product, which means that they are built to last longer. There is no legal definition for 'biodegradable,' so these balloons can still end up in our natural areas and be ingested by animals before they ever have the change to break down," Lomberk said.
She also added that the strings attached to balloons are almost always made of plastic.
The ordinance in Jacksonville could be on the books in six weeks if it's adopted. There could be a public hearing on the proposed bill Aug. 9 before then as well.
Diamond's proposed ordinance follows the lead of other cities and counties on the First Coast that have banned balloon releases like Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, Fernandina Beach, St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach, the Town of Marineland, St. Johns County and Flagler Beach.