Imagine enjoying a vacation in one of your favorite outdoor places. You come upon trash tangled in the grass by a river: a card attached to a pink ribbon and the remains of a ragged green balloon. The card has a friendly message from a church and a request for you to respond with where and how you found the card.
A group I was with last month was in this position. This is my response.
Dear [Undisclosed] United Methodist Church,
I received your Easter card attached to a balloon. Thank you.
But please consider finding another way to share your message.
I was in LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area), a 2,000 acre nature preserve in the heart of the metroplex. The group I was with hiked and explored beautiful forests, prairies, and aquatic ecosystems for three days. On April 26 we were surprised to find your card near the river, tangled in the grass. We read your message and although no one disparaged it, three people in the group are members of United Methodist churches and seemed to cringe at their denomination being associated with litter.
About the Nature Preserve
I do not represent LLELA when I send this letter, but I’m someone who cares about the place and all the life within it. Putting LLELA in context, the land is recovering from a history of harsh use by humans. The forests were cleared, the prairies were plowed, the wildlife was killed, and the land was used as a dump. LLELA staff and volunteers work diligently to restore ecosystems, reintroduce and care for native species (like Wild Turkey and Texas Bluestar), and ensure that our natural heritage is here for future generations. Slowly, LLELA is again becoming a refuge for wildlife and native plants and a place people fall in love with.
What’s the big deal about a balloon?
Plastic pollution is a crisis for our wildlife, fisheries, and fellow humans. (More info at Plasticpollutioncoalition.org)
Ribbons, string, nets, and fishing line are devastating to wildlife, including birds. LLELA staff show pictures like these to fishermen to encourage them to clean up their trash:
Balloons and plastic bags, once in water, look like jellyfish. They tempt and choke countless wildlife, including turtles.
You and I may seem landlocked in prairie, forest, and city, but we share a watershed connected to the Trinity, which flows to the Gulf.
Trash, just like water, rolls downhill.
The Gulf of Mexico, as you probably know, faces plenty of pollution problems. Seagulls, pelicans, dolphins, turtles, fish and humans contend with oil spills, agricultural and suburban fertilizers, chemicals pouring in from our storm drains, and humanity’s ceaseless flow of unnecessary trash.
But it’s not just the Gulf that suffers. The problem is local, too. People at LLELA find wildlife tangled in fishing line and ribbon too often, and usually only after the situation has become fatal. There are lakes, ponds, and rivers near you, too, and if you look closely, scenes like this are common:
Due to ocean currents, even places where humans don’t live, or where humans don’t produce plastic, are swamped with debris.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the terrible plight of the Midway Atoll Albatrosses, where thousands of young birds die each nesting season because they eat plastic debris. Long after they perish and their bodies completely decay, the plastic remains, to be eaten by the next generation of chicks. One piece of our throwaway plastic can contribute to untold deaths.
I implore and encourage you to use your creativity, passion, and love to find another way to share your message.
- Send paper airplanes off a tall building, or leave little cards on benches, on buses, or in restaurants. You might be shocked to hear a conservationist propose strewing paper about, but paper is biodegradable and, in the United States, usually sustainably sourced.
- Join the Geocaching community and leave messages of hope and love that way. When you add to or create geocaches of your own, you’re tapping into a network of engaged, interested searchers.
- Start a sustainability club or committee to consider your outreach, even looking at your utensils, cups, and plates. I hope you ascribe to the well-founded belief that every action and choice an individual or organization makes changes the world – for good or ill. With more information, we can make decisions that better all species.
- This website suggests alternatives to balloons.
- You’ll find even more info and alternatives here.
I’m sure you’re not intending to cause harm. I’m sure, like me, you’re trying to reduce suffering in the world.
I also understand that your balloon release was intended to be a joyful and community-enhancing event. My horror at finding a balloon in the wild doesn’t squelch my curiosity: I’m fascinated by the distance this balloon traveled: about 25 miles in 6 days (as the crow flies). I have lots of questions I’d love to ask you about how many responses you received, where they were from, and more. I’m not writing to squash your joy or outreach; I’m writing to help you do less damage.
I recognize your denomination and possibly congregation face many challenges in the future. As you decide your path and actions, please carefully and compassionately consider the environment in your ethics. Your decisions affect humans and all other species, the least of these, who have no voice in our society. With just a few habit changes, you can profoundly influence the world for good.
I have mailed this to [four staff members] and also posted it on my blog. I didn’t include the full name of your church, because that might expose you to undue criticism. I’m not here to gripe; I’m here to help.
Please, please find another way to share your message, and consider the environment when you do.
Don’t Mess With Texas!
Sincerely and hopefully,
The Happy Naturalist