Just as the hullabaloo over Balloon Boy seems to be finally cooling off, Berkeley is getting ready to make some noise about balloons.
At tonight's meeting, the Berkeley City Council will vote on whether to ban balloon releases based on a report from the city’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission that says that balloons pose an environmental hazard when let loose.
The commission is recommending that the council request the city manager to include a clause prohibiting balloon releases in special event permits issued by the city. The council might even decide to ask city staff to work with the CEAC to provide event organizers, schools, businesses and balloon sellers with leaflets informing them about the dangers of having a Mylar or latex balloon floating around.
If the council approves the stipulation, balloon enthusiasts will have to think twice before letting go of that string at birthdays, graduations and block parties, occasions where balloons have traditionally been a big part of the celebrations.
Although environmentalists might approve of the prohibition, not everybody feels the same way.
Berkeley's largest balloon seller, Paper Plus Incredible Balloons at 1629 San Pablo Ave., will be at the council meeting to oppose the ban.
“They are trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist,” said Don Daniels, a certified balloon artist who has been with Paper Plus for over a decade. “There are no balloon releases in Berkeley. I have sold balloons for 15 years—from people's births to when their loved ones have passed away to all the holidays in between—and I have never done a single balloon release. My question is: How many balloons are being released in Berkeley? How big a problem is this?”
CEAC's report doesn't offer any statistics. What it does say is that although the commission “does not oppose the use of balloons nor wants to ruin an amusement for people, the wanton release of balloons into the air is tantamount to dumping” toxic materials into the San Francisco Bay. Their report says that Mylar balloons can lead to shocks or blackouts and even injure utility workers trying to remove balloons stuck on power lines. And balloon chords can choke birds to death, the report says.
“Balloons can be enjoyed without watching them float away indiscriminately into the sky,” said the commission, which at one point had even considered extreme alternate measures, such as banning balloons entirely or the materials they are made from.
Daniels said that California state law already mandates that all Mylar balloons be put on a weight so that they don't float away.
Calls to Berkeley's Hazardous Waste Manager and CEAC Secretary Nabil Al-Hadithy and CEAC Chair Greg Leventis were not returned by press time.
Every week Paper Plus sells more than 2,000 latex and Mylar balloons—pearls, stars, cats, caterpillars, columns, centerpieces—which find their way into shelters, schools, churches and even prisons.
“We have things you have never seen before, things you never knew you could do with balloons,” Daniels said. “You should see the kids run and fall into them. Balloons generate emotions. But now, people will be scared to buy them. A ban will put a chill on the industry.”
Daniels' said that even if balloons are released in the air, 90 to 95 percent of them disappear, while only 5 or 10 percent make it back to the ground. Latex balloons are biodegradable, he said.
Daniel's employer, Michele Schurman, who started Paper Plus 25 years ago with her husband Philip, nodded in agreement.
“I am outraged by the false allegations of the hazards of balloons in the report,” Schurman said, “The CEAC has done no research, and moreover they have done no balloon studies on the environment. Just because the CEAC makes a statement does not make it a fact.”
Holding up a piece of paper from the Balloon Council, a national organization representing balloon sellers, Schurman explained that latex dissolves in water.
“CEAC states that plastic and latex are associated with the deaths of all sea life—I am sorry but they have made this up,” she said. “If swallowed, latex will not block the digestive tract. It's not a plastic bag.”
But CEAC contends that in cold water, even latex can take as long as six months to disintegrate.
“Balloon's ain't cheap, so people won't release them anyway,” Daniels said, making a “running man” balloon out of one bubble and five longitudinal balloons Monday as a wide-eyed 2-year-old watched. “They take them home and keep them 'til they have the last gasp of air in them.”
Schurman said she had approached her councilmember, Linda Maio, and other city officials to protest the proposed ban.
Reached Monday, Maio called the recommendation “a sensible item.”
“I don't see anything wrong with it on its face,” she said. “It's about time people realized there are some consequences to using these things carelessly.”
A customer hunting for Thanksgiving decorations turned around in surprise when she heard about the proposed ban. “I don't think it's a bad idea, though they release everything else in the air,” she said laughing. “I think we have more important things to focus on. This is so Berkeley.”
Daniels said that city officials had told him about similar bans in Virginia and Florida.
“The city is saying anyone who releases a balloon will be fined, not the person getting the permit” said Daniels. “So guess what, when that little baby lets go of that balloon, he can get a ticket for $100 to $200.”
Schurman said that she had received a letter from the city saying that in the event council adopted the CEAC's recommendation, her store would be “required to have a leaflet stating that customers” couldn't release balloons into the air and some ideas on how to dispose of them.
“Who's going to pay for it?” Schurman asked. “The city's broke. We can't pay any more. We already pay for licenses and property taxes.”
Both Schurman and Daniels called the idea a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“Berkeley claims to be business-friendly. Well, three years ago the city said helium is hazardous and charged us a $2.70 tax for it; then they said the sign outside was two inches too big, 'take it down.' " said Daniels. “Then they said we are going to put parking meters outside. We said it's going to kill our business, but they said they were broke and that they will have to put them up. And now they are saying they have to ban balloons. They never talked to us and we are the biggest balloon store in the East Bay.”
As Daniels stood at the cash register handing out fliers that said “Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon … except the city of Berkeley,” 1-year-old Sabine Rosen walked in with her mother to pick up a couple of balloons for her birthday party.
“Mommy, I want the purple stars,” she said smiling, her eyes lighting up at the sight of all the different balloons adorning the shop's walls.
When Sabine's mother heard about the proposed ban, she didn't seem too upset.
“I think it's fine,” she said. “It's not good for the birds. But if nobody's releasing them, it doesn't matter one way or the other.”
The Berkeley City Council meets at 7 p.m. tonight (Tuesday, Nov. 17) at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.