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 Debris Reduction Efforts

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. Balloons were identified as one of the most harmful items to wildlife. All released balloons are litter. Many drift out over the ocean and eventually fall to the water. The color quickly wears off and the balloons resemble jelly fish–a favorite food of sea turtles. Birds also are easily entangled in the balloons and their ribbons.

Download - Fact Sheet on the impacts and survey work conducted on balloon litter. 

As part of the Virginia Balloon Litter Study, researchers have conducted surveys on several barrier islands. The chart below shows the relationship of balloon litter to other litter items found on South Hog Island on July 17, 2014.

Chart showing balloon and other debris removed from ES barrier island in one day

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 send-off ideas that capture the same joyous and picture-perfect moment identified as one of the reasons balloon releases are conducted. The difference is that the alternatives do not result in harmful litter. All Joyful Send-off ideas engage family and friends in a memorable celebratory send-off. Our goal is that couples choose not to release balloons on their wedding day or at anytime in their new lives together. The campaign is being funded by grants from the NOAA Office of Coastal Management and Marine Debris Program.

Visit the Joyful Send-off campaign website -


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Virginia Department of
Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 1105
Richmond, VA 23218
(804) 698-4000

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