Marine Debris in Virginia: The Issue...Balloons

Marine debris is of local, regional, national, and global  concern. It has become one of the most widespread pollution problems in the world’s oceans and waterways, impacting wildlife, human health and safety, habitats, and economies.

As much as 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources such as plastic bags and food containers. Abandoned or derelict fishing gear, vessels, and other water-based sources also significantly contribute to the problem.

In Virginia, the most problematic and abundant types of debris are: fishing gear (commercial and recreational); cigarette butts and balloons; food and beverage containers; and plastic bags.

Balloon Litter Impacts and the Results of a Survey of Balloon Litter on Virginia's Remote Beaches

One of the near term actions identified in the Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan was design and implementation of a social marketing campaign targeting behaviors that will reduce balloon litter in the marine environment. Released balloons are one of the most harmful and deadly litter items to wildlife. Many drift out over the ocean and eventually fall to the water. Most latex balloons burst in the atmosphere before returning to the ground, so that when they fall in the water they resemble jelly fish–a favorite food of sea turtles. Birds also are easily entangled in balloon ribbons. Foil balloons that become entangled in power lines can cause wide-spread power outages. Read more about these and other impacts of balloon litter in the fact sheet below.

Cover of fact sheet on Reducing Balloon Marine Debris in VirginiaDownload fact sheet - Reducing Balloon Marine Debris in Virginia - a fact sheet on the impacts of balloon litter and survey work to document the extent of balloon litter. 

Download report Balloon Litter on Virginia’s Remote Beaches by Christina Trapani, Kathy O'Hara and Katie Register - submitted by Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University to the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program


This study documents balloons as the most abundant type of waste on five remote beaches surveyed between 2013 and 2017. More than 11,400 balloons, balloon pieces and attachments were found on Virginia’s most remote beaches. Balloon litter was the #1 most frequently found type of marine debris on these beaches. Balloons and their attached plastic clips and ribbons made up 40 percent of all debris recorded, followed by plastic bottles and fishing gear. The amount of balloon litter varied from 25 items per mile on Cedar Island in Accomack County, to more than 272 items per mile at Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge in Northampton County.


Joyful Send-off Community-Based Social Marketing Campaign

Joyful Send-off Campaign Logo

After extensive pre-campaign research in Virginia between 2015 - 1017 to better understand who plans balloon release events – and, most importantly, why - the Virginia CZM Program and Clean Virginia Waterways launched a new social marketing campaign, Joyful Send-off. 

The goal of the campaign is to reduce helium balloon releases at weddings. The Joyful Send-off campaign encourages couples to use alternative, litter-free, send-off ideas that capture the same joyous and picture-perfect moment identified as one of the reasons balloon releases are conducted. The campaign is being funded by grants from the NOAA Office of Coastal Management and Marine Debris Program.

Visit the Joyful Send-off campaign

Cover of report: Balloon Release Research in Virginia & Reducing Balloon Debris through Community-Based Social Marketing
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Virginia Department of
Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 1105
Richmond, VA 23218
(804) 698-4000

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