This Mediterranean Enclave Just Outlawed Helium Balloons

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Every year on September 10, residents of Gibraltar gather in Casements Square to celebrate their national holiday. Part of the festivities used to be the simultaneous release of some 30,000 red and white helium-filled balloons — approximately one for each resident — into the blue Mediterranean sky.

One of the 25 smallest countries and territories in the world, Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory on the southern tip of Spain. The sovereignty of this tiny piece of England attached to the European mainland is a constant source of disagreement between the UK and Spain — a situation further complicated by the impending advent of Brexit.

Gibraltar also has the dubious distinction of being one of the countries that produce the most waste — but the government has become increasingly environmentally aware in recent years, and in 2016 it outlawed the annual fusillade of balloons. As they deflate, they end up in local waters, where they endanger birds and marine life.

Now local authorities have gone a step further and banned the release of helium balloons anywhere, anytime, period. The government “wants to reiterate its commitment to clean seas, free of plastics and other non-biodegradable materials which cause so much harm to wildlife,” read an official statement issued on March 21.

The Strait of Gibraltar, between the territory and the nearby coast of North Africa, is rich with marine life and forms an important flyway for migratory birds. The Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society campaigned for the balloon ban for almost a decade.