At the age of 14, Nisha Singhi has already made more impact on state environmental policy than most adults. As a result of her work, two Michigan legislators have introduced bills. Nisha, who resides in Bloomfield Hills and is a sophomore at International Academy there, became concerned several years ago about the problem of balloon debris and litter in the environment. She decided to do something about it through state policy.
Over the summer, she met with her state lawmakers, Representative Mari Manoogian and Senator Mallory McMorrow, to discuss the issue of balloon releases and their harm to wildlife and the environment. In September, she was invited to shadow Rep. Manoogian for a day at the State Capitol. When Nisha arrived, Rep. Manoogian and Sen. McMorrow surprised her by introducing bills in the Michigan House (H.B. 5373) and Senate (S.B. 675) banning the intentional release of balloons into the outdoors. The Illinois Legislature is considering similar legislation. FLOW interviewed this enterprising young advocate. Here’s the conversation:
FLOW: How did you first hear about the environmental problem of balloon releases?
Nisha Singhi: Just a couple years ago, I wasn’t even aware of the issue of balloon debris. I was at my uncle’s birthday celebration when my aunt decided to release a bouquet of balloons in “celebration” of him. I saw the balloons being released and just a few seconds later, to my dismay, they got caught in a massive oak tree near the house. Later that month, I was sitting in the dentist’s office, reading Pure Michigan magazine and saw that Lara O’Brien, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s School for the Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) and founder of the Balloon Debris Citizen Science Survey, was championing this issue. I read that released balloons could cause immense harm to the environment and that the balloon I saw that was stuck in the tree could have killed a bird! That’s when I decided to pursue this issue further. (Nisha has been working closely with O’Brien and María Dabrowski, a current SEAS graduate student, who have shared research on balloon debris, community engagement and outreach, policy, and plastic pollution in the Great Lakes). Click here to read FLOW’s coverage of Lara O’Brien and her advocacy against balloon releases.
FLOW: Why did you think it was important to deal with the problem?
Singhi: The driving force that motivated me to help with the problem was the startling statistics I encountered. Eighteen thousand pieces of balloon debris were found in the Great Lakes between 2016 and 2018, and according to a study done by the University of Tasmania, balloon debris is 32 times more likely to kill seabirds than hard plastics. Balloon debris is a type of plastic pollution, and 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes annually, costing about $500 million each year for coastal communities to clean up. I finally understood that while many people believe that balloon debris is a small problem, it has significant impacts on the environment, natural resources, and our economy.
FLOW: What steps did you take after learning about the problem to become better informed?
Singhi: After reading about the work that Lara [O’Brien] has done to spread awareness about the harmful effects of balloon releases, I reached out to her to learn more about the issue when I was in 8th grade. I have worked with her, as well as María [Dabrowski] consistently throughout the past two years. I read many news articles and blog posts about the issue of balloon debris in the Great Lakes region and attended webinars about plastic pollution. Among the webinars I attended, a few were hosted by environmental groups in my region, such as the Alliance for the Great Lakes. I also did research into the distribution of balloon debris in the Great Lakes and Midwest regions, as well as all of the balloon regulations and policies in these areas. I delved deep into the policy aspect of environmental issues and the Michigan political system.
FLOW: How did your local legislators get involved and what have they done so far to get something done about all the releases?
Singhi: I have always been interested in public policy and government, so meeting legislators to help enact regulations that address this problem was a priority for me. I got the amazing opportunity to speak with Representatives Manoogian and [Padma] Kuppa and Senator McMorrow to discuss pursuing this issue as a bill in the Michigan Legislature. I have been working with Rep. Manoogian, Sen. McMorrow, and their staff to draft and introduce legislation. As a result of their amazing support and hard work, H.B. 5373 and S.B. 675 came to fruition.
FLOW: You testified in front of a state legislative committee in Lansing. Could you describe what that was like, and what do you think of the outcome? What impressions do you have of the political process to make legislation?
Singhi: Walking into the committee room in the Anderson House Office Building, I was extremely nervous. Usually, I get very nervous before presentations and then as soon as I start talking, my heart rate slows down, and I become calm. It was exciting and exhilarating sitting in front of the experienced committee members in a seat that was meant to intimidate—the Representative and I were sitting at a lower height in the center of the room with the committee sitting all around us looking down. As soon as I started speaking, the words flowed out since I was speaking about something that I am passionate about. As a young girl listening to “I’m Just a Bill” by Schoolhouse Rock, I always thought the political process was drawn-out and unnecessary. However, now I believe that each step is crucial in ensuring that well thought-out, justified legislation is passed. It is a long process, for sure, but now I understand it is necessary to make legislative decisions that benefit the people.
FLOW: Do you have advice for other people your age who might want to get active on an environmental issue based on what you’ve learned so far?
Singhi: My biggest advice would be to choose a problem dear to your heart that is small enough to tackle. No issue is too small, but sometimes, and this has happened to me as well, it is extremely overwhelming and discouraging to look at all of the threats facing our environment as a whole. I would say finding an issue that you can tackle wholeheartedly, and encouraging others to get involved as well, is my best advice for youth advocacy. Also, being flexible with your goals is another big one. Sometimes, certain paths don’t work out, and you may get discouraged along the way (I know I did), but making sure that you have a plan A, plan B, plan C, and more for ways you can get involved in the issue is one of the most important parts of spreading awareness and advocating.