2018-01-19 / Front Page

Kennebunk student proposes balloon ban

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Two years after Kennebunk banned the use of disposable plastic shopping bags in town, a high school junior is urging selectmen pass the same judgment on balloons.

Willy Jones made his pitch to the board at its Jan. 9 meeting, showing a series of slides depicting latex, mylar and foil balloons found on Gooch’s, Mothers and Parsons beaches during the past year.

“Being a coastal town, this is concerning to be personally,” he said. “These balloons clearly do not biodegrade, not in a short amount of time in any case. It’s scary to see this going on.”

Jones then showed photos of cups and Styrofoam containers discarded alongside the road. “If we call this litter,” he said, “what do we call this?” The next several slides were of massive balloon releases at various community and sporting events around the country. Jones has in the past found balloons on local beaches printed with labels from release events as far away as New York.

Balloon releases are banned in Maine schools and Kennebunk does not stage any mass releases at town-sponsored events. Jones has previously worked with the town’s festival committee and has secured a promise that it will not use balloons in any of the decorating for this year’s May Day celebration.

“Hopefully, that’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

However, Jones wants the town to go further, banning balloon use, or at least mass releases, from private events in town, as well.

Board chairman invited Jones to work with the town’s ordinance committee to craft a proposal to put before voters.

“We’ll ask you to work with the committee on the language you’d like to see, that you think we can get before the public with a positive vote, and then we will bring it back through the process,” he said.

Kennebunk’s ordinance committee includes Town Manager Michael Pardue, Town Clerk Merton Brown, and selectmen Dan Boothby, Christopher Cluff and Shi- loh Schulte.

As of Tuesday, a meeting of that group had not been scheduled. According to Brown, in order to make the warrant for the June 12 annual town meeting, anything Jones might propose would have to get a final nod from selectmen by March 27.

“I think it’s more likely we might see this in November,” Brown said.

For Jones, the environmental dangers posed by balloons represents a whale of a problem, in more ways than one. He was 7 years old when a fall from a tree broke his arm and changed his life forever, setting him on the course that has led to his one-man anti-balloon crusade.

It wasn’t the break so much that altered the course of events for Jones. Those things happen. But his mother Pam, seeing the young boy’s frustration at being suddenly unable to participate in many of his usual activities, decided to give her son a treat, something a little different that he could do even bound up in a cast, and, so, took him on a whale watch.

“It was off Newburyport, Massachusetts, and I got a chance to see a whale logging, which is sleeping, next to the boat,” recalled Jones, now 17, in a recent interview. “I was less than 10 feet away from the thousand-pound creature just sitting in the ocean — I was just so amazed, because it was the biggest animal I had ever seen in the wild. After that, I just kind of developed this connection with sea life, and with whales particularly.”

“It was really an amazing, special moment,”

Pam Jones recalls. “He looked right into the whale’s eye, and it looked right back at him, and you could just feel them really seeing each other.”

After that, Jones developed an interest in whales that, he readily admits, bordered almost on the obsessive.

“I began thinking about whales, and drawing them, and reading everything I could find on them, and writing about them,” he says. “I guess my passion just grew from there and developed. I begged my mom to take me back on another whale watch, and we did, like, a million times.”

Well, maybe not a million. But on a subsequent trip, Jones got a chance to see a group of endangered right whales — a few of only 425 or so thought to still exist. But what Jones also noticed was something in the water only a few dozen yards from where the whales were skimming across the ocean’s surface. Right whales feed by “skimming” — swimming with their mouths open and taking in vast quantities of water, which they allow to filter out though the baleen plates they have in place of teeth, retaining the zooplankton of microscopic animals that make up the balance of their diet. And right there, in the path of the hungry whales, bobbed a bouquet of multi-colored balloons, which had escaped from some shoreside celebration.

“Obviously, anything that eats a balloon, that’s not going to be good for it, but for a while it can get wrapped up in their internal organs and totally stop its digestive process,” Jones said. “Plus, chemicals leech from the plastic into their endocrine system. It’s just basically totally kills their system. But for a whale, there’s no way for it to pick a balloon out of its baleen, the way we might pick something from our teeth. That’s impossible.

“So, I saw these balloons floating next to these almost extinct animals and I kind of completely freaked out,” Jones said. “After that, I started thinking about what I could to help them.”

Eventually, as it became clear that Jones’ love of whales was not mere infatuation, that it might well develop into a lifelong vocation, his family relocated from Pennsylvania to Maine, to be closer to the ocean on a regular basis. They settled in Kennebunk, having grown to love the town from previous vacations, landing near Mother’s Beach, which Jones walks daily with his dog.

Each trip, they make a point of picking up trash others leave behind, including balloons. Not long ago, Willy found one with printing on it that, thanks to Google, he was able to track to a 2015 Family Day festival at the Dyckman House, the oldest remaining farmhouse on Manhattan, located at 4881 Broadway, in New York City.

“I found these pictures of this politician posing with people at this festival and you can see the balloons all in the background are the exact same ones as the one I picked up off Mother’s Beach,” Jones said.

Jones does not fault anyone at that New York event, least of all the state assemblyman seen in the photo.

“I think people want to do their part to help protect the environment, they just don’t have a sufficient amount of awareness of the impact they have,” he said.

And so, Jones has waged a war to boost that awareness. For several years, he’s mentored younger children and given talks to grade schoolers about balloons and whales and the ocean environment. For these, he carts around a display that began life as a sixth-grade science project, which he’s been building upon ever since. As part of the display, Jones keeps a balloon found on the beach in a jar of ocean water, along with an oak leaf he found nearby, and a gummy bear.

The Balloon Council, and organization of industry retailers, distributors and manufacturers founded in 1990, works to educate the public on balloons, spending $80,000 per year over the last three years lobbying Congress to ensure laws are not passed that ban or restrict balloon use.

According to the council, “A latex balloon is made from 100 percent organic material and it’s 100 percent biodegradable.”

“Stress caused by inflation starts this decomposition cycle,” the council says on its website, balloonhq.com. “Exposure to sunlight accelerates the process — oxygen and ozone continue the molecular attack even in the dark. Deterioration is clearly evident within a few hours — it begins to oxidize or ‘frost, — and soon the balloon will break apart. Research has shown that under similar conditions latex decomposes as quickly as an oak leaf.”

But in Jones’ jar, the oak leaf, which takes two years to decompose in soil, has long since broken down into tiny flakes, while the balloon remains unchanged.

“From the first whale watch I went on I have put together everything I’ve learned to try and educate people on litter and its effects on the environment, which often doesn’t even occur to them as they go about their daily lives,” Jones said. “Balloons are a great representation of that. They are a symbol of celebration, of letting things go, or letting spirits fly free. And I get that. But they have to go somewhere, and our planet is made up of 80 percent water.”

Jones has said he is not proposing a total ban on the sale and use of all balloons in town, as the town adopted for plastic shopping bags — an idea first proposed by a student at Sea Road Elementary School — because he understands the needs of area businesses.

“Apart from what the balloons represent as part of the festival, businesses use them to attract attention,” he said. “I totally understand that they need a way to capture attention outside their door. That’s important, of course, and they need time to come up with some other alternative.”

Jones suggests the town might slowly transition away from balloons to more traditional forms of celebration, such as the cloth twirling ribbons used for centuries before balloons were invented.

“Really, it’s not just whales that are affected by balloons — they’re not at all good for birds or any animals. Turtles, especially, are impacted, because the balloons look in the water like the jellyfish they normally feed on,” Jones said.

Jones has said that anyone who wants to help him with clean up efforts, or have him speak before a civic or youth group, should contact him by email at willyhelpswhales@gmail.com.

“We are all connected through our environment and our natural world,” he said. “Our oceans and our ecosystems bring us together as one. When we litter, we might not think about where it goes or the harm it does to animals when it gets there. When we don’t pick up the litter we see in nature, we leave it there as a threat to anything that eats it. Whatever happens to nature happens to us.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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