A local Seattle radio had a plan to commemorate 9/11 -- release 3,000 balloons. It seemed like a simple enough way to remember our fallen heroes. But then, a listening marine biologist sounded the urgent warning: "Balloons kill marine and terrestrial wildlife." Do we really want to commemorate 9/11 by killing more of our fellow creatures?
Releasing balloons into the air is littering. It also endangers the whales, dolphins, sea turtles, seals, and seabirds who mistake floating balloons for jellyfish or prey. Once ingested, the Mylar or latex doesn't break down. Balloons strangle, suffocate, starve, or entangle our mammal cousins in a slow, painful death. On land, even cows and horses have been known to eat balloons.
Several states and cities have declared mass release of balloons illegal. Clean Virginia Waterways (CVW) encourages everyone using balloons to never let them go and dispose of balloons as soon as you are finished with them. Think of the car dealerships who cut loose balloons at the end of a sale; the politicians with their VOTE FOR balloons; the birthday parties, yard sales, Grand Opening balloons all sailing off into the stratosphere -- and into our seas and littering our earth.
In California, the Marine Mammal Center has a "Stop Trashing Our Oceans" campaign that educates people about the problems and injuries of marine mammals trapped in ocean trash. "Each year, trash in the ocean kills more than one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles when they ingest or become entangled in it." Balloons, plastic bags, pop top plastic rings all are a threat.
Where I live in Seattle on the Salish Sea, my daily beach walks reveal plastic bottles, flattened balloons and ribbons, and Styrofoam -- all of which pose dangers and pollute the vital oceans which are life support for us all. Every year we usually also have marine mammal strandings, including several gray whales.
On Seattle's Arroyo Beach, a dead gray whale washed ashore in 2010. A necropsy revealed that the whale's stomach was full of trash. As the Seattle Times reported, his intestines contained: "Sweatpants. A golf ball. Surgical gloves. Small towels. Bits of plastic. And more than 20 plastic bags."
Long-time cetacean researcher, John Calambokidis, said that in 20 years of examining more than 200 whales, he'd never seen so much trash in a whale's stomach. Gray whales feed on the seabed and so often ingest the debris of our civilization. "It kind of dramatizes the legacy of what we leave at the bottom," Calambokidis said.
The legacy of 9/11 will always be with us. Just as the images of the debris and ashes falling from the sky, the people leaping from burning buildings, the brave rescue workers running into a crumbling skyscraper -- will always be in our memories. Memories, like plastics, sometimes take generations to biodegrade.
On this weekend of memorializing our dead, instead of releasing thousands of killer balloons, we can find other ways to remember our fallen. This 9/11 anniversary, how about a beach clean-up or a memorial service in the old-growth forests? Packing out our trash.
Clean Virginia Waterways suggests alternatives to balloons, such as:
Plant a tree
Create wildlife gardens that will attract butterflies and birds
Release balloons only inside a church, gym, or ballroom
Donate books to a local library, food to a local food bank, or pet food to local animal shelter to celebrate your group's achievement or honor a loved one.
After listening to callers, the Seattle radio station decided to commemorate 9/11 by releasing only 10 balloons. But many other callers said they'd release their own balloons, anyway.
What goes up -- like the Twin Towers -- should never come tragically tumbling down. And the balloons that go up into the air should never come down to do any damage. On 9/11, let's have no more loss. 9/11 was a human tragedy, but also an environmental disaster. People and the earth are still suffering its long-term effects.
By doing something positive to nourish our earth and all her creatures, we also nourish ourselves -- and leave a legacy of a healthy ecosystem to our children. That is the greatest way to commemorate those we have lost. Honoring their memory -- and our earth.
Brenda Peterson is the author of over 16 books, including the National Geographic Sightings: The Gray Whale's Mysterious Journey and the forthcoming children's book Leopard and Silkie: One Boy's Quest to Save Seal Pups. She is co-founder of Seal Sitters, which is a part of the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network.