As It Happens

Why a New Jersey senator is taking on the powerful 'balloon lobby'

When New Jersey Senator Jim Whelan introduced bill to ban the release of balloons into the sky, he didn't expect to come head-to-head with a powerful balloon lobby.
Under proposed New Jersey legislation, people could be fined $500 US for releasing balloons into the sky as a part of celebrations and memorials. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

Story transcript

When New Jersey state Senator Jim Whelan introduced a bill to ban the release of helium balloons into the sky as part of celebrations and memorials, he didn't expect to come head-to-head with a powerful balloon lobby.

"First off, I was surprised to find out there was a balloon lobby," the Democratic senator told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"But I said, you know, I just don't see the need to release balloons and, you know, they obviously have a different take."

According to the New Jersey Daily Record, the Trenton, N.J.-based Balloon Council fought off a similar bill in 1989 and has spent more than $1 million US in the past five years lobbying against balloon regulations.

Still, Whelan is not backing off his proposal, arguing the balloons pollute the land and the ocean and cause hazards when they get tangled in power lines.

"We're not necessarily against balloons, per se," he said. "Have all the balloons you want, just don't release them up into the atmosphere where you don't know where they're going to come down."

Whelan citis the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which warns that balloon releases are deadly for marine life because they land in the sea and get eaten by birds, turtles, and other animals. 

On its site, it shows images of dead marine animals that were poisoned by balloons or entangled in their strings.

Pictures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show a sea turtle that appears to have died after eating a balloon, and seabird that was strangled by a balloon string. (USFWS Eastern Shore of VA, Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program/U.S. Fish and Wildlife )

A handful of New Jersey municipalities, including Atlantic City, already have balloon release bans in place, as do some states. 

Dale Florio of Princeton Public Affairs, which represents the Balloon Council, told the Record those bans "are a threat to a lot of mom and pop businesses in the balloon industry."

"It creates a negative narrative about balloons, which is unfounded," he said, arguing that balloon litter is not nearly as bad as what's created by bottles and cans. 

Balloon releases are bad for the environment, says Senator Jim Whelan, because 'what goes up must come down.' (Issei Kato/Reuters)

That line of argument doesn't sit well with Whelan. 

"Oh, so then it's OK to create litter? Like, the threshold is if you're not as bad as the soda cans, you're OK? I don't quite accept that logic."

He also takes issue with the Balloon Council using "mom and pop" rhetoric while spending big money on lobbying.

"They have a very effective lobbying effort, both here in New Jersey and across the country," he said. "So I guess mom and pop are doing OK."


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