Balloon Mission is up and away to save


Where do helium-filled balloons go when they’re released into the sky?

Cynthia Seibold had that same question. And she discovered that the old axiom was true: What goes up must come down. But not in ways people might like.

The North Merrick resident with a background in insurance underwriting, spent a lot of time outdoors at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. She noticed, however, that among all the litter found in the various parks, preserves and beaches she visited, one category stood out: balloons.

Or rather, shreds of balloons. Seibold found their strings and what was left of their plastic or rubber bodies impacting trees and plants and, of course, wildlife — animals that could easily mistake balloon pieces for food.

It’s not that balloon releases — or how they potentially threaten the environment — is something new. But the pandemic created a new surge of such helium-intensive events as a different way to share birthdays, graduations and retirements.

“Balloons are (a) leading cause of pollution in our waters and our air,” Seibold said. “They break down into microplastics and nanoplastics. I kept saying to myself, ‘There has to be a better way.’”

She found it with her nonprofit, Balloon Mission.

“Our program is to collect balloons before they end up on the land and in oceans, reducing our carbon footprint and the harmful microplastics that are generated from balloons,” Seibold said. “And for every balloon that is sold and responsibly collected, we feel it’s going to be one less piece of litter that’s harming our wildlife.”

Still, Seibold wants to make one thing very clear: She is not “anti-balloon.”

“This is a growing issue,” she said. “I think people need to know that there are options of ballooning responsibly. We’re not telling you to not have your balloons, but discard them in an appropriate manner.”

Although the nonprofit is in its early stages, Seibold has already received a great deal of support while building relationships with local and statewide organizations. That includes the Hempstead town sanitation department, and the state environmental conservation department.

One of Seibold‘s primary goals is to the get the message out that Balloon Mission is collecting balloons with plans to set up collection bins as early as January so people can properly dispose their holiday balloons.

Those bins will be cardboard boxes with Balloon Mission signage, Seibold explained. Locations are still being determined, but she hopes to have them in community-oriented locations like firehouses, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and libraries.

On a national level, Seibold said, people are noticing the effects balloons have on the environment.

“There was actually a New York Times article that came out in March of 2022 that talks about this surge in balloon frenzy,” she said. “We couldn’t celebrate and we couldn’t do things when we were in lockdown.

“We did these big balloon displays, and they’ve gotten even bigger, and it’s not going away. People want this — they want a balloon collection. They want options. They want to feel like they’re part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Through her research and communication with Hempstead town officials, Seibold learned the municipality actually passed a local law prohibiting the intentional release of balloons in 2019. Yet, balloon releases still happen, she said, making it important that signage goes up — perhaps sometime next spring — advising against such activities.

Seibold is working closely with ACDS, an organization that offers lifetime services to people of all ages with intellectual disabilities. Formerly the Association for Children with Down Syndrome, the organization has locations in North Merrick and Plainview.

Jane Cohen, the day habilitation services supervisor at ACDS, says it’s important for her group to offer volunteers to various environmental organizations, and that its members are excited about helping Seibold’s nonprofit.

“In January, we’re going to start collecting (balloons) from various pickup sites, and then we’re going to bring them back to our hub sites and sift through them,” Cohen said. Volunteers “can work on their office skills and note-taking, so they can feel like they’ve accomplished something. It’s very rewarding for our individuals.”

ACDS plans to provide some 200 volunteers to Balloon Mission.

“We feel this is a symbiotic relationship,” Seibold said, adding it “works in keeping with ACDS’s goal of increasing life and social skills, and work readiness for their participants.”

She also hopes to educate people on alternatives to balloons.

“I’m not looking to get rid of balloons — they make people light up,” she said. “I would like to start thinking of alternatives. Can we blow bubbles? Can we send up a nice waft of smoke or sage into the air? It’s about finding these other ways of commemorating those moments in our life.”

Seibold hopes her nonprofit will get people thinking about ways to help find solutions.

“There are people that are smarter than me out there,” she said, “and I need those people in on the Balloon Mission.”