Balloon releases are a spectacular sight to see. The bright colors fill the sky and depending on the occasion can invoke a deep emotional response.
Balloon releases have been used for decades as a way to celebrate an occasion, mark the memory of a lost loved one, promote an event, or just help a business showcase their brand.
A vision of balloons lifting off into the sky sounds attractive; however there is an environmental downside to that event that very few people realize.
Environmental Risks from Balloon Releases
Latex (rubber) is the material used for balloon releases and is designed to be biodegradable (we’ll come back to biodegradability shortly). Mylar balloons have a metallic coating and are not to ever be used for a balloon release since they can cause significant damage to power lines and may never biodegrade.
Let’s now explore for a moment what happens to a helium-filled latex balloon with nothing attached in the moments that follow its release.
Assuming you are using a latex balloon with nothing attached to it, that balloon can rise as high 30,000 feet. The extreme cold temperatures at high elevations cause the latex walls to become stiff and eventually become brittle while the decreased atmospheric pressure causes the balloon to expand. While these forces are working on the balloon, air currents can easily carry the balloon 500-miles from its starting point. With the right conditions, balloons have traveled thousands of miles and even crossed oceans.
The competing forces between the brittle walls and the need for expansion eventually result in the balloon shattering. This is where Isaac Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity kicks in.
It is estimated that millions of balloons are released intentionally and accidentally every year. In fact, many events regularly release over 50,000 balloons in a single event.
The shattered remains of the balloons rain down on our land and into the waterways as colorful litter.
It is indeed true that a latex balloon is designed to biodegrade and many industry representatives will tell you that the time it requires is consistent with that of a leaf falling on your lawn. For the sake of our discussion, we take that information as true; however, this statement oversimplifies the environmental concerns and conditions that most balloons actually experience.
Conservationists from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) have provided a little elaboration based on their years of field research. Their observations indicate that latex balloons do no biodegrade at nearly the same rate when exposed to open water.
A 2004 analysis of international coastal cleanup projects identified that over 63,000 balloons were gathered from beaches across the planet. That figure does not represent all beaches, it only accounts for the places where a cleanup project was taking place and the MCS reviewed their findings.
As a result, the fallen material is left to be discovered and ingested by various forms of sea life.
The MCS has also observed that a large number of balloons never seem to reach the altitude required to burst. They simply drift back down to the surface where they can do more harm.
Many animals are fooled by the brightly colored latex – they see what appears to them as food.
Researchers find that as many as 1 in 20 birds may have balloons somewhere in their digestive tract. And, while the latex may be designed to biodegrade under ideal conditions, the balloon fragments turn into a gum-like mess inside the animals. The result is a blockage of the digestive tract that slowly starves the animal to death.
Balloons have been found in sea turtles that mistake the drifting fragments for their natural food source, the jellyfish.
Balloons have been consumed by animals on land as well. Big horn sheep confuse the balloons for the flower of the plants they consume and regularly ingest the material.
All of these concerns are terrible; but there are other factors that increase the level of risk to animal life. Here are several of the other factors that raise the risk:
- Attached Ribbons: Ribbons represent an even greater threat because entanglement.
- Attached Cards: These materials weigh the balloon down and keep it from reaching the altitude required to burst.
- Balloons Not Hand Tied: The use of plastic ties may be convenient; however, it weighs the balloon down and represents another piece of plastic being released into the environment.
- Mylar Balloons: While not legal to use in balloon releases in most states, they represent a wide range of environmental problems.
Alternatives to a Balloon Release You Should Avoid
People looking for an alternative to conducting a balloon release have many options to choose from. They also have some things to look out for.
When looking at alternatives, be sure to steer clear of these:
- Butterfly Release: These are problematic for a number of ecological reasons. They are typically raised elsewhere and shipped to where they are used. This is a dangerous way to introduce genetic material to the local population. If there is no local population, then you may have just released what can become an invasive species.
- Sky Lanterns: These are the floating paper lanterns fueled by the flame of a candle. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how these have been responsible for brush fires and are now banned in much of the country. The Boy Scouts of America have banned sky lanterns because releasing unmanned fire is in conflict of the scouts’ safety principles.
Eco-Friendly Alternatives to a Balloon Release
If you’re looking for alternatives that you can try that have less impact to the environment, perhaps you can consider one of these choices:
- Plant a Tree: It’s an outstanding way to remember someone you love or to celebrate a new beginning.
- Use Bubbles: The options have become fairly extensive. You can get a high volume of small bubbles or large ones that will wow your audience. Pair this with a eco-friendly bubble solution and you’re set.
- Fly a Flag or Banner: Commemorate your loved one with a sharp looking flag that everyone will notice.
- Release Floating Flowers or Petals: This act is great in its symbolism and has an affect or bringing peace and calm to your event.
Countless other options are available so feel free to use your imagination. You don’t need to litter to get your message out there.
The Future of Balloon Releases
The tide is starting to turn on balloon releases. More and more people are starting to recognize that this is a fancy way to spread litter. More nations have gotten on board with regulating balloon releases. In the United States, many states are enacting restrictions or outright bans of the practice due to their harmful nature.
States where balloon releases are illegal include California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. Additionally, many states in the northeast are considering similar legislation including New York, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
Latex balloons are still a huge industry and I wouldn’t expect them to go away anytime soon. That doesn’t mean you can’t think of an alternative way to celebrate, commemorate, or get your brand recognized.