What counts as littering? Some signs of littering might be obvious, like the 20,000 pounds of trash collected on Virginia Beach after the Memorial Day weekend. But strictly speaking, the definition depends on the country and state. In some states in the USA, the weight or type of litter determines the severity of the crime. Penalties for littering can also depend on state, ranging from $20 in Colorado to $30,000 in Maryland. Indiana, USA defines littering as the intentional placement or leaving of “refuse on property of another person.” You are caught flicking your cigarette from a moving vehicle? Littering. You dump a bag of trash on the neighbor’s lawn? Littering. And in Indiana, you can be charged a fine up to $1,000 that qualifies as a Class A infraction.
What about releasing thousands of balloons, like at the Indy 500 in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 26, 2019?
Balloons seem festive and innocent enough, especially when used for birthdays, graduations, and general well-wishing. But released into the air, balloons pop in the thinning atmosphere and fall back to earth. That’s when balloons turn into their evil counterpart. Balloons strings entangle animals and they mistake them for food, trying to swallow them and then becoming a choking hazard. In a recent study, researchers reviewed how plastic pollution contributed to >1700 seabird deaths and found that balloons pose the highest risk to seabirds of all ingested debris. Sea turtles, too, are particularly threatened by balloon littering because the soft plastic resembles a food item, jellyfish.
The balloons released at the Indy 500, “reported as 100% biodegradable”, are not*, in fact, biodegradable. Although more brittle, many balloons were still intact after a test of 11 months in the natural environment. If a balloon pops and falls on property in Indiana, by the state law, that should qualify as littering. But for a larger corporation littering with thousands of latex balloons, the fine should be higher. We can do better for the environment and a higher fine for littering might be the economical motivation to rethink next year’s Indy 500 balloon release.
(*Disclosure: The Indianapolis Star reporter, Emily Hopkins, who did this experiment is engaged to Massive founder Allan Lasser)