2017-04-07 / Front Page

Teen plans to eradicate balloon use in SoPo

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — A Kennebunk teen is tackling a whale of a problem, and while he’s begun by addressing it in his own town, he says he plans to bring his solution to South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, and other coastal towns.

His name is Willy Jones and when he was 7 years old a fall from a tree broke his arm and changed his life forever.

It wasn’t the break so much that altered the course of events for Willy. Those things happen. But his mother Pam, seeing the young boy’s frustration at being suddenly unable to participate in many of his usual activities, decided to give her son a treat, something a little different that he could do even bound up in a cast, and, so, took him on a whale watch.

“It was off Newburyport, Massachusetts, and I got a chance to see a whale logging, which is sleeping, next to the boat, recalled Jones, now 16 and a sophomore at Kennebunk High School. “I was less than 10 feet away from the thousand-pound creature just sitting in the ocean — I was just so amazed, because it was the biggest animal I had ever seen in the wild. After that, I just kind of developed this connection with sea life, and with whales particularly.”

“It was really an amazing, special moment,” Pam Jones recalls. “He looked right into the whale’s eye, and it looked right back at him, and you could just feel them really seeing each other.”

After that, Willy developed an interest in whales that, he readily admits, bordered almost on the obsessive.

“I began thinking about whales, and drawing them, and reading everything I could find on them, and writing about them,” he says. “I guess my passion just grew from there and developed. I begged my mom to take me back on another whale watch, and we did, like, a million times.”

Well, maybe not a million. But on a subsequent trip, Jones got a chance to see a group of endangered right whales — a few of only 400 or so thought to still exist. But what Jones also noticed was something in the water only a few dozen yards from where the whales were skimming across the ocean’s surface. Right whales feed by “skimming” — swimming with their mouths open and taking in vast quantities of water, which they allow to filter out though the baleen plates they have in place of teeth, retaining the zooplankton of microscopic animals that make up the balance of their diet. And right there, in the path of the hungry whales, bobbed a bouquet of multi-colored balloons, which had escaped from some shoreside celebration.

“Obviously, anything that eats a balloon, that’s not going to be good for it, but for a while it can get wrapped up in their internal organs and totally stop its digestive process,” Jones said. “Plus, chemials leech from the plastic into their endocrine system. It’s just basically totally kills their system. But for a whale, there’s no way for it to pick a balloon out of its baleen, the way we might pick something from our teeth. That’s impossible.

“So, I saw these balloons floating next to these almost extinct animals and I kind of completely freaked out,” Jones said. “After that, I started thinking about what I could to help them.”

Eventually, as it became clear that Willy’s love of whales was not mere infatuation, that it might well develop into a lifelong vocation, the Jones family relocated from Pennsylvania to Maine, to be closer to the ocean on a regular basis. They settled in Kennebunk, having grown to love the town from previous vacation to the area, landing near Mother’s Beach, which Willy walks daily with his dog.

Each trip, they make a point of picking up trash others leave behind, including balloons. Not long ago, Willy found one with printing on it that, thanks to Google, he was able to track to a 2015 Family Day festival at the Dyckman House, the oldest remaining farmhouse on Manhattan island, located at 4881 Broadway, in New York City.

“I found these pictures of this politician posing with people at this festival, and you can see the balloons all in the background are the exact same ones as the one I picked up off Mother’s Beach,” Jones said.

Still, Jones does not fault anyone at that New York event, least of all the state assemblyman seen in the photo.

“I think people want to do their part to help protect the environment, they just don’t have a sufficient amount of awareness of the impact they have,” he said.

And so, Jones has begun a one-man crusade to boost that awareness. For several years, he’s mentored younger children and given talks to grade schoolers about balloons and whales and the ocean environment. For these, he carts around a display that began life as a sixth grade science project, which he’s been building upon ever since. As part of the display, Jones keeps a balloon found on the beach in a jar of ocean water, along

The Balloon Council, an organization of industry retailers, distributors and manufacturers founded in 1990, works to educate the public on balloons, spending $80,000 per year over the last three years lobbying Congress to ensure laws are not passed that ban or restrict balloon use.

According to the council, “A latex balloon is made from 100 percent organic material and it’s 100 percent biodegradable.”

“Stress caused by inflation starts this decomposition cycle,” the council says on its website, balloonhq.com. “Exposure to sunlight accelerates the process — oxygen and ozone continue the molecular attack even in the dark. Deterioration is clearly evident within a few hours — it begins to oxidize or ‘frost, — and soon the balloon will break apart. Research has shown that under similar conditions latex decomposes as quickly as an oak leaf.”

But in Jones’ jar, the oak leaf, which takes two years to decompose in soil, has long since broken down into tiny flakes, while the balloon remains unchanged.

“From the first whale watch I went on I have put together everything I’ve learned to try and educated people on litter and its effects on the environment, which often doesn’t even occur to them as they go about their daily lives,” Jones said. “Balloons are a great representation of that. They are a symbol of celebration, of letting things go, or letting spirits fly free. And I get that. But they have to go somewhere, and our planet is made up of 80 percent water.”

Recently, Jones has taken a step beyond his efforts to “plant a seed” in the minds of youngsters. At the March 15 selectmen’s meeting, Jones stood up during the “public comment” portion of the meeting and asked municipal officials to limit use of balloons at the annual May Day festival.

Jones says he’s not yet pushing for a total ban on balloons, as the town recently adopted for plastic shopping bags, because he understands the needs of area businesses.

“Apart from what the balloons represent as part of the festival, businesses use them to attract attention,” he said. “I totally understand that they need a way to capture attention outside their door. That’s important, of course, and they need time to come up with some other alternative.”

At the Kennebunk Selectmen’s meeting, Jones suggested the town might slowly transition away from balloons to more traditional forms of celebration, such as the cloth twirling ribbons used for centuries before balloons were invented.

“Really, it’s not just whales that are affected by balloons — they’re not at all good for birds or any animals. Turtles, especially, are impacted, because the balloons look in the water like the jellyfish they normally feed on,” Jones said.

Selectmen were receptive to Jones’ entreaties, and referred him to the town’s Festival Committee. Since then, Jones says he’s secured a commitment from the Kenneunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District to limit the use of balloons at its festival booth.

“Norm Labbe, the superintendent, was full of contributing ideas and positive support,” he said.

“I also just talked with Teri Collard, who is a member of the town's May Day Commitee,” Jones said in a March 25 email. “She responded to my proposals of alternatives with a wonderfully positive approach. Although it's too late for this year, the May Day committee and the town have agreed to use more environmentally friendly alternatives for next year's celebrations.

“I am currently getting a group of people together from the Environmental Awareness Club at my school to help dispose of the balloons correctly after the May Day celebrations this year,” Jones said. “We want to do everything we can to do our part.”

Jones said that anyone who wants to help him with clean up efforts, or have him speak before a civic or youth group, should contact him by email at willyhelpswhales@gmail.com.

“We are all connected through our environment and our natural world,” he said. “Our oceans and our ecosystems bring us together as one. When we litter, we might not think about where it goes or the harm it does to animals when it gets there. When we don't pick up the litter we see in nature, we leave it there as a threat to anything that eats it. Whatever happens to nature happens to us.”

Might Kennebunk eventually adopt a full balloon ban, for public use as well as at municipal events. Jones says that’s the “ultimate goal,” even if he is approaching it with baby steps and effort to secure voluntary buy-in before anything is compelled by ordinance, and maybe even to avoid it coming to that point. His approach is not at all dissimilar to that of Bella Rossborough, now a sixth grader at the Middle School of the Kennebunks who, while in the fourth grade at Sea Road Elementary, initiated the public awareness campaign that led to the town’s plastic bag ban.

That Jones and Rossborough, and others in their Kennebunks peer group are so interested in environment, and so adapt at taking action politically even at a young age, bodes well for the town, according to selectboard Chairman Dick Morin.

“I’m impressed,” he said. “We have had emails, we have had visits. Our students in this town are very engaged and I commend them for coming forth and steering us in the right direction in a variety of different ways. I thank you.”

“I’m focusing on Kennebunk for right now, but it would be great to take this to other towns in the area,” Jones said, referencing Scarborough, Old Orchard and South Portland/Cape Elizabeth as areas of interest. “In the meantime, I’m definitely interested in speaking to any youth groups in those towns.”

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