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Southampton Town floats idea of potential ban on helium balloons

Gwen Waddington, co-owner of The Wharf Shop in

Gwen Waddington, co-owner of The Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor, said "there is no alternative for celebratory occasions. I wrack my brain thinking about what would be a more ecological alternative to balloons." Credit: Randee Daddona

Southampton Town is floating a proposal to ban the sale of helium-filled balloons and will allow residents and businesses to air their thoughts on the potential legislation before it is voted on.

Environmentalists are asking the town board to pass a law that, if adopted, would prohibit the sale and distribution of helium-filled balloons at places like party stores, pharmacies and supermarkets. Members of the town’s sustainability committee envision a bill that would still allow individuals to purchase or rent a helium tank and inflate their own balloons, and called for an education campaign to accompany the issue.

The goal is to cut down on balloon litter that can make its way into the environment and is often eaten by wildlife. Southampton officials believe they would be the first Long Island municipality to adopt such a law, although similar legislation has passed in Nantucket and Provincetown, in Massachusetts.

“We all have seen pictures of dead sea mammals who have ingested these materials because it looks like food to them,” said Tip Brolin, a member of the sustainability committee who presented to the town board at its work session Thursday.

Officials said the law would be largely self-enforced, although the committee's proposed legislation does call for offenders to face a fine.

“The balloon police is not the idea,” said Councilman John Bouvier, the sustainability committee liaison.

Brolin also noted helium is needed for medical, scientific and industrial purposes, including cooling magnets in MRI scanners, and the world is facing a global helium shortage.

But Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant, in an interview said balloons make up about 10 percent of the helium market and even a nationwide ban would alleviate only half the shortage. He said the commercial impact, instead, would be on local retailers.

“Philosophically, I am absolutely for the ban on helium balloons,” said Gwen Waddington, co-owner of The Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor,which sells helium-filled balloons. “But there is no alternative for celebratory occasions. I wrack my brain thinking about what would be a more ecological alternative to balloons.”

Southampton Town has been one of the first Long Island municipalities to adopt several environmentally forward bills in the past few years.

Other laws adopted by Southampton Town include a prohibition on the sale of plastic checkout bags in 2015, and bills adopted last year include a ban on polystyrene food containers, a ban on the distribution of plastic straws and a ban on the intentional release of balloons.

Suffolk County later adopted similar laws, and New York State will roll out a bag ban on March 1.

“You can pretty much be sure that Southampton is always in the lead,” said Dieter von Lehsten, a member of the Southampton sustainability committee, which is also asking for restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers in the town.

Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the town could post an online survey on the helium issue and noted a public hearing will be held before any code change is adopted.

“I do want to do the right thing for the environment,” he said. “But I want to understand how it’s going to affect people’s lives.”

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