99 Red Violations Go By

I've always wondered why we don't shame--or, for that matter, prosecute--people who release lighter-than-air balloons into the sky. When I see someone throw an empty fastfood bag out of their car window, I get pretty upset about it.  Even if it's in the middle of an otherwise filthy city, it's not cool.  

1.5 million balloons released for  Balloonfest 1986  in (where else?) Cleveland, Ohio

1.5 million balloons released for Balloonfest 1986 in (where else?) Cleveland, Ohio

Yet when it comes to latex and mylar balloons, how many of us think twice when we see one floating by overhead? Some cities even block off downtown to facilitate balloon releases en mass. A balloon released into the air can end up anywhere the wind takes it, including private property, rooftops and bodies of water. At least in the case of the fastfood bag, I know where the bag is. I can pick it up and throw it in the trash if I'm really bothered by it. Not the case with balloons. 

Section 4 of the Illinois Litter Control Act provides, in part: "No person shall dump, deposit, drop, throw, discard, leave, cause or permit the dumping, depositing, dropping, throwing, discarding or leaving of litter upon any public or private property in this State."  415 ILCS 105/4 (West 2010). 

So in the case of a balloon released by someone within Illinois, proving jurisdiction requires proving the balloon landed on property within Illinois. That would be tough. The statute also reaches people in other states who release balloons that land in Illinois. Prosecutorial discretion, anyone?

Most municipalities have ordinances that could be construed to prohibit the release of a balloon into the sky. See, e.g., Municipal Code of Champaign, 1985, Ch. 15, Sec. 15-15(a) ("No person shall deposit or leave any refuse or any material in such a place or condition that it can be blown by the wind so as to be scattered or cause clouds of dust or particles."); Ch. 15, Sec. 15-17(a) ("No person shall dump or deposit refuse or cause refuse to be dumped or deposited upon any property or within the trash receptacles of another without the permission of the owner.").

As to the large scale balloon releases, which in my opinion are much more deserving of public ridicule, perhaps city and state officials don't intervene because the excuse given by the participants politically estops them from doing so (as in the case here, here, and here, where the balloons were released to commemorate dead kids). How would you like to be the police chief who says no to that, or the state's attorney who files an indictment against the organizer of the event? The local news crew on hand would have a great story.

Let's be honest, we're far from the day when any official will find it advisable to prosecute people who release balloons into the air. I loved doing it when I was a kid, and I'd probably still get some enjoyment out of it. But let's at least acknowledge that it's just as bad as littering. The only difference is we have no idea who will ultimately have to come across the deflated, bright-colored piece of latex or mylar when it lands. 

There do exist biodegradable balloons, but those balloons decompose at the same rate as an oak leaf, meaning they don't do much to eliminate the aesthetic damage done by littering.


I think people who wish to commemorate dead children, or spread autism awareness or any other message, by releasing dozens of balloons into the air should instead light a candle or two, because the duck whose pond your balloon lands in isn't going to feel much sympathy.