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Taking the Air out of Balloon Pollution: Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year Danielle Vosburgh

Danielle Vosburgh has been selected as the Fund for Wild Nature’s Grassroots Activist of the Year for 2020. Danielle is co-founder of the Florida-based grassroots group Balloons Blow, which opposes helium balloon releases and their harmful impact on wildlife.

Discarded balloons are particularly dangerous for animals living in the ocean. When balloons deflate and fall into the water, they can be readily mistaken for food. Balloons and their attached ribbons can also cause entanglement or strangulation. Examples of marine wildlife killed or injured by balloons include numerous species of seabirds, sea turtles, seals, dolphins, and whales. Researchers in Australia found that balloon debris is the deadliest form of marine pollution for seabirds, killing almost one in five birds who ingest it! Many terrestrial animals are also harmed by balloons, such as songbirds, owls, desert tortoises, elk, and even a bighorn sheep that was found choked to death by a cluster of balloons.

Danielle and her sister Chelsea were inspired to start Balloons Blow after a childhood in which they and their parents regularly cleaned up debris from the beaches near their home in southeastern Florida. Danielle was troubled by how much the volume of debris along the coast increased over the years. She was particularly struck by the role of balloon pollution after finding a cluster of balloons with markings indicating that they had been released in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a vivid illustration of how far balloons disperse around the country.

This experience ultimately led Danielle to cofound Balloons Blow in 2011. She was 23 years old at the time. In the great tradition of volunteer environmental activism, she works on Balloon Blow in her spare time while holding a full-time job. Balloons Blow began as a website and a social media presence, and soon she was hearing from people around the world who have witnessed the widespread impact of balloons—including an example of one found high up on a glacier.

Danielle decided to try to stop some particularly highly-profile, large-scale balloon releases. One of her early targets was the Clemson University football team in South Carolina, which had been featuring huge balloon releases at home games since the early 1980s. It took seven years of persistent advocacy by Balloons Blow before achieving victory in 2018 when Clemson announced that it would end its balloon releases.

Another high-profile target has been the Indianapolis 500 auto race, which has featured mass balloon releases for over 70 years. In 2019, Balloons Blow tried a new tactic for the Indy 500. With financial assistance from the Fund for Wild Nature, Danielle purchased a billboard next to the racetrack calling out the harms from balloons. However, within hours of the sign going up, the billboard company took it back down. Danielle was told that the company was under pressure from Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The removal of the Balloons Blow billboard then attracted significant media coverage. As Danielle recounted, the suppression of the billboard “wound up causing more of a stir.” Subsequently, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has come under new management, and Danielle is hopeful that, with continued campaigning, there may be an opportunity to finally end the Indy 500 balloon releases.

The Fund for Wild Nature specializes in supporting small grassroots groups who are confronting much larger opponents. Balloons Blow is a good example of this “David and Goliath” dynamic. And the balloons themselves provide a ready way to call out big companies involved in balloon releases because their names are often printed on the resulting debris. Balloons Blow’s website includes a “Wall of Shame” with photos of examples from McDonald’s, Publix, Nissan, and many others.

Beyond these individual companies, Balloons Blow’s biggest opponent is the Balloon Council, which lobbies to prevent restrictions on balloon releases. The Balloon Council formed in 1990 in response to an effort by schoolchildren to get a state ban on balloon releases after they read about a whale who died from swallowing a balloon. More recently, Balloons Blow successfully got a balloon release halted in Trenton, New Jersey—the hometown of the Balloon Council. Not long after, Danielle received an anonymous letter with a New Jersey postmark that simply said– “be careful.” Reflecting on the implicit threat, Danielle said, “So we must be having an impact!”

Despite the Balloon Council’s efforts, legislation restricting balloon releases have been enacted by five states and 22 cities in the US. Furthermore, right now there are pending bills in Arizona, Maryland, New York, and Virginia.

Beyond these legislative outcomes and the victories against individual balloon releases, Danielle is also quite proud of the responses she has received from youth around the world who have used Balloon Blow’s Student Action Pack to reach out to their classmates and communities.

For all these reasons, the Fund for Wild Nature has been pleased to support the work of Danielle and Balloons Blow. The Fund was created by grassroots activists to get more resources to bold grassroots groups working to protect wildlife and wild places, recognizing how even a small amount of money for these groups can lead to big results. The Fund for Wild Nature depends entirely on annual contributions from the public, which it then redistributes to support worthy grassroots groups throughout North America. In addition to providing grants, the Fund sponsors the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award as another way to promote bold activism. The Fund has presented Danielle with a $1,000 check and a trophy featuring a badger in recognition of her selection as the 2020 Grassroots Activist of the Year.

 

Douglas Bevington is the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear (Island Press, 2009), and he is a board member of the Fund for Wild Nature.

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