Tuesday, 8 May 2012

An open letter to Lord Sebastian Coe: litterbug

Lord Coe
House of Lords

Dear Lord Coe,

Many organisations such as the RSCPA and the Marine Conservation Society are working to prevent the deliberate release of helium mylar and latex balloons so that they do not cause slow painful deaths for wildlife and domestic animals.

Very often balloon releases accompany fundraising for good causes or are launched in memory of someone who has died. I commemorated my late sister after she died in an accident this way, so I fully understand the feelings of those that do this. So I am reluctant to contact organisers of memorial releases to tell them their actions are are compounding their tragedy but each memorial release only gives further credibility to the misguided but widely held belief that balloon releases are harmless.

A good deal of PR goes into claims that a latex balloon will burst into small pieces and then degrade in the environment "as fast as an oak leaf" though this research was originally published by the Latex Rubber Institute of Malaysia and that headline rate actually takes years in the cold salt water off Britain, enough time for a seabird or turtle to swallow a balloon. Not all released balloons burst nor break into small fragments. My local paper delights in reporting that balloons launched from East Anglia turn up deflated but intact in Scandinavian forests. Also, the strings tied to them are a separate and even more lethal hazard.

Fundraising balloons have killed cattle and resulted in hefty compensation claims from those responsible. The National Farmers Union have previously campaigned against balloon releases, stating: "When the balloons land in grass fields they might be eaten by grazing livestock or contaminate hay, again with the risk of being swallowed by livestock when they eat the hay. Balloons are just another form of litter, making the countryside look untidy."

The amount of balloon litter found on beaches has been increasing year on year. The Policy Paper on Balloon Litter by Keep Wales Tidy is perhaps the most detailed analysis of the subject and it refutes the arguments of the balloon industry that balloons are biodegradable.

Many fast food restaurant chains and supermarkets claim their packaging and bags are biodegradable too but none would say it is acceptable to scatter them at random in the environment, so the balloon industry's position is quite absurd.

Several states in the USA and in Australia have banned the release of any kind of helium balloons. One commentator says "balloon releases are littering. Organised balloon releases are organised littering."

Keep Scotland Tidy reckon balloon and flying lantern releases, with their potential for creating litter, could actually be interpreted as an offence under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to drop "or otherwise deposit" litter in a public place. With this in mind, it is asking Scotland’s local councils to ban balloon and flying lantern releases from premises within their control, including all school buildings, and consider entering a new condition on entertainment licenses to prevent balloon and flying lantern releases.

Some progress is being made. The RSPCA has stepped in to advise event organisers about these dangers when they've had enough time. But last week, 22 nursery schools - which should be mindful of the impression this makes on young people - released balloons for wounded soldiers.

So far the response by various authorities to my complaints about balloon releases has been ostrich-like. After I complained to the police about a release in North Yorkshire, on the basis that it was indistinguishable from littering, I was referred to Scarborough Borough Council as they are the "enforcing authority" for littering. Subsequently Harry Briggs, Recycling And Waste Enforcement Manager for Scarborough Borough Council, suggested I write to the newspapers to complain.

Perhaps these authorities fear a media backlash. A former member of a county council recounted to me their experience of a campaign started by the local press piling scorn on them for being a "spoilsport" when they proposed to legislate a ban of balloon releases.

With millions of balloons sold every year, education and codes of practice alone won't prevent the needless deaths and the continued pollution of both our environment and attitudes to conservation, especially when organisations such as LOCOG release balloons at events in the build up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

I think that until there is a judicial ruling that a balloon release is not littering or in any way harmful, and therefore legal, the reporting to authorities of deliberate releases as crime of littering or fly-tipping is the only way to ensure the authorities will focus on this problem.

Therefore I have reported you to the Metropolitan Police for your wilful act of littering that was witnessed by 40,000 spectators in the vicinity of E20 2ST at around 9 pm on May 5th 2012. The Metropolitan Police's confirmation number is MPS CR03-00049452.

However, you will no doubt be pleased to know the Metropolitan Police responded that: "This should be directed to the Mayor of London, or the event organisers. (as) No offences to report."

So, we are stymied. It is difficult to discourage those who release balloons directly while the authorities ignore the law or choose not to enforce it. But I feel we cannot do nothing and see birds, turtles, basking sharks and cattle killed by ingesting ballons and their strings and have our landscape and young people's attitudes to conservation polluted by the actions of others.

So, with all due respect sir, could you not, in your position, ensure that London's Olympic games will honour their pledge to be the most environmental games ever and take no part - and even actively discourage - further balloon releases.

Yours sincerely,

Nat Bocking

Thinking of organising a balloon release? Please read this.

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