Over 20 years ago, Chelsea Vosburgh ’11 and her family began a weekly tradition of cleaning up trash along local Florida beaches. It was a way for them to get out and enjoy nature while doing something positive for the environment. Vosburgh says that the amount of marine pollution washed ashore is very alarming, and particularly troubling is the number of discarded balloons lying on the beach, endangering the animals and ecosystems.

There is an growing number of people who release balloons as ways to raise awareness, celebrate, honor loved ones, or simply to watch them float away, and Vosburgh notes that through this seemingly benign act, the impact on wildlife and the environment has largely gone unrecognized. She says the number of balloons her family sees as they clean up the beaches has dramatically increased and recently they came up with a bigger, more far-reaching plan to protect the environment.

On Earth Day 2011 they launched Balloons Blow, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people, businesses and event organizers about the danger and destruction that released balloons can cause. The website also promotes sustainability and suggests ways to live a more eco-conscious lifestyle by not buying single use items, and even offers environmentally friendly alternatives for balloon releases.

Although currently there are laws concerning balloon releases in several US states and in other countries, the laws are often either not known, not enforced or both. Consequently, uninformed celebrators, grieving groups and others continue to arrange and promote releases through various websites and Facebook pages. Since its creation, Balloons Blow has served to fill the void of online information regarding the environmental impact of balloons.

“We started keeping track in 2011 and to date, my family and I have collected thousands of balloons,” said Vosburgh.  “Over six hundred balloons have been collected by people from around the world who have recently discovered Balloons Blow. This is a testament to the fact that this issue extends way beyond the Florida beaches, and people are starting to realize the serious impact that released balloons can have on wild and domestic animals and the environment.”

Examples of life-threatening situations that can occur when marine and terrestrial animals encounter discarded balloons include ingestion resulting in intestinal blockage (the animals commonly mistake the balloons for food), or animals getting entangled in the ribbons. Both of these situations often lead to a slow and agonizing death for the animal. There are also other environmental problems caused from non-latex balloons including power outages caused by Mylar balloons contacting electrical power lines and the use of helium, a non-renewable resource, in balloons.

The Balloons Blow website and social networking pages are internationally connected with over 14,000 people, and the organization receives photos daily from around the world. Using their online resources, Vosburgh and her family have put together outreach material as well as a growing photo gallery, enabling the organization’s message to be spread far and wide.

“Some of my favorite photographs are of young children who have found spent balloons,” said Vosburgh. “They understand the dangers and are not afraid to speak up to others. I don’t know what the future will hold, but Balloons Blow will continue to grow and adapt with new information which will help us spread our message.”

Vosburgh believes that once people understand the impact of balloons, they will begin to consider the environmental consequences of other personal choices as well.

How Unity Helped Vosburgh Pursue Her Dreams
Most professors at Unity College use an experiential learning model, taking general information and turning that information into real-life situations and applications. This model enables professors to teach their students skills they will need throughout their careers. Vosburgh credits part of her success with Balloons Blow to her education at Unity College.

In December of 2011 after graduating with a degree in Wildlife Conservation, Vosburgh began a series of internships that included work from protecting endangered species to North American wolf recovery. These internships took her from Virginia to New Hampshire, North Carolina, coastal Maine, and eventually to the Southwest. She says that in every location in which she interned and on her travels along the way, she found discarded balloons left from releases. Vosburgh was taken aback that the balloons were literally everywhere and based on what she encountered, feels that no ecosystem is safe.

Vosburgh says that what she learned at Unity College and the internships that were secured as a result of her education gave her the knowledge and experience to establish and manage an organization that educates and inspires others to create change.

“During my Administration and Organization course with Associate Professor Tom Mullin, I realized that working for a nonprofit was something I wanted to do, but I never thought I would be the president of a nonprofit before I graduated,” says Vosburgh. “Sometimes it is hard to juggle running an organization and working to triangulate wolves, but the skills I am acquiring, and knowing that I am making a difference makes it all so worth it.”

In May 2013 Kim and Kenn Kaufman, authors of the renowned Kaufman Field Guides, invited Vosburgh and her sister to give a presentation at the Biggest Week in American Birding® festival, a 10-day event featuring workshops, guided birding activities, keynote speakers, and more. This was their first formal presentation and they came well prepared with a Powerpoint presentation, a sample of found balloons, and single-use plastic and polystyrene with bite marks from sea turtles, fish and sharks.

Balloons Blow was also selected to speak at Bonfire Heights, an annual environmental convention created to encourage entrepreneurship and movements towards social goodness and community. The presentation will take place in California this November, and Vosburgh and her sister will share their knowledge about the dangers of balloon releases and the effects of such activity on the environment as well as ways to lessen the negative impact humans have on the planet.

In recent years Unity College has gained national attention for a variety of achievements including its focus on sustainability science; its ground-breaking “green” innovations such as the award-winning TerraHaus, the first student residence on a college or university campus built to the Passive House standard, the most energy efficient building standard in the world; and for being the first college in the United States to divest from investments in fossil fuels, igniting a growing national movement in higher education.

Unity College is a private college in rural Maine that provides dedicated, engaged students with a liberal arts education that emphasizes the environment and natural resources. Unity College graduates are prepared to be environmental stewards, effective leaders, and responsible citizens through active learning experiences within a supportive community.

(Image: Orange latex balloon next to orange deep water gorgonian)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013