When Bloomfield Hills resident and International Academy sophomore Nisha Singhi attended a birthday celebration for her uncle several years ago, she didn’t expect it would lead to developing a passion for saving wildlife through proposed state legislation to ban balloon debris.
As Singhi explains, part of the celebration involved the release of balloons which became caught in a large tree, causing her to be concerned for nearby wildlife. Later that month, she picked up a Pure Michigan magazine in her dentist’s office and read how Lara O’Brien, a graduate student at University of Michigan’s School for the Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), was championing the issue of environmental dangers caused by balloon litter through her Balloon Debris Citizen Science Survey website.
“I found her website easy to understand and decided to pursue this issue further. It bothered me that harm was being done to the environment and balloon debris was killing marine life and birds,” Singhi explains. She reached out to O’Brien for information on this issue, then continued education and collaboration efforts with her and another SEAS graduate student, Maria Dabrowski, over the next two years. Singhi’s parents, Amit and Usha Singhi, have also been “super supportive” of her passion for this cause.
According to Singhi, the statistics are startling – while balloons make up only a small portion of plastic pollution, they are among the deadliest for wildlife. Between 2016-2018, 18,000 pounds of balloon debris were found in the Great Lakes. Balloon debris is non-biodegradable and 32 times more likely to kill marine birds than hard plastics because it breaks apart and many wildlife species mistake it for food which can cause choking, digestive problems, or death. She also notes the economic impact to plastic pollution, as cleanup efforts cost Great Lakes coastal communities about $500 million each year.
“The unique thing about this issue is that it is narrow but can make a huge impact,” she says.
Last summer, Singhi contacted her local legislators, Sen. Mallory McMorrow, and Reps. Mari Manoogian and Padma Kuppa, to discuss the environmental harm caused by balloon releases. In September, she was invited to shadow Rep. Manoogian for a day at the state Capitol in Lansing, and was surprised and delighted when Rep. Manoogian and Sen. McMorrow introduced identical bills in the Michigan House (H.B. 5373) and Senate (S.B. 675) banning the intentional release of balloons outdoors.
In October, Singhi was asked to testify in front of a state legislative committee in Lansing.
“I have always been interested in public policy and government. It was amazing sitting in front of experienced committee members. I was nervous, but as soon as I started to speak, the words flowed out. Afterward, I appreciated the kind words of encouragement and support…It was an experience of a lifetime.” Both bills are currently in legislative process.
As for the future, Singhi hopes the bills pass and people find more environmentally friendly alternatives to celebrate the moment or milestone. She plans to continue her research and involvement in environmental issues and public policy and looks forward to starting college in two years. She encourages those who want to make a difference to “find an issue you are passionate about and start small.”
Balloon Debris Citizen Science Survey website, balloondebris.weebly.com.
Story: Tracy Donohue
Photo: Laurie Tennent