When you think of a balloon, what comes to mind? If you are like most (including myself), perhaps you think of a birthday gathering, graduation ceremony, or another exciting celebratory event.
As a child, I used to look forward to coming downstairs on my birthday to find a room filled with a dozen brightly colored balloons – all twirling near the ceiling for me. However, now I find myself concerned each time I see one of these helium-filled decorative items.
I remember clearly when these feelings of concern first began… I was working as a Naturalist with the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point. During our public whale watching tours, I would notice at least one deflated balloon (if not more) floating out in the ocean. Now if the image of a deflated balloon isn’t a little depressing on its own – throw it into the ocean drifting all alone and tell me how you feel! I began to wonder where the deflated piece of mylar or latex may have come from. What was its celebratory purpose? Was it intentionally released or did escape a child’s small hand? Was it from a local hotel or did it float into the sea from some far away town?
After these initial thoughts passed, I then found myself feeling frustrated that it was in our ocean – regardless of its source.
I would continue to watch the collapsed balloon drift by the boat as dolphins, whales, and seabirds swam and fluttered nearby. Did these animals know the potential danger the shiny object in the water posed for them? No, and how could they? Were they responsible for it being there in the first place? No, we were.
Now, you might argue – well I didn’t release that balloon so how am I responsible?
Let me ask you this… How many other balloons have you gotten rid of throughout your life time, let go of accidentally, or purchased and shared with another who might have done the same? Now I am not saying having a balloon should be considered a criminal act, but I am hoping that you might consider alternatives to balloons the next time you consider including them in a celebration. Because once you understand a bit more about their economic and environmental effects, perhaps you will find them not so appealing. I know I did.
Before I explain some of the problems that balloons can cause, allow me to briefly share about the two different materials that they are made from.
Although considered “bio-degradable”, laytex balloons will take anywhere from 4 months to 6 years to completely degrade. That leaves a whole lot of time for them to enter into storm drains, litter the streets, fall into the ocean, or end up in the stomach of an animal where they definitely don’t belong. In fact, one study shared by the Environmental Nature Center found that balloons floating in seawater deteriorate at much slower rates and retain there elasticity even after a year. Outside of the balloon itself, the string they are often attached to also possess a direct threat to wildlife, both terrestrial and marine species.
This shiny material is definitely not bio-degradable and is made with a metallic material originally designed for use with the US space program. These are the type of balloons that are often made into big numbers, letters, or shapes of unique kinds. Because of their metallic nature, mylar balloons are capable of causing power outages, fires, and other dangers when coming into contact with power lines and electrical currents.
In fact, mylar balloons have posed such a threat to electrical poles and communities that California (among many other states) has enacted a law banning their release into the air. How about that?! This law also includes that mylar balloons must be tied to individual weights to prevent them from floating away freely or in large groups. Because as Southern California Edison has shared, for the third straight year there has been a record number of metallic-balloon caused power outages in California – with 1,094 alone last year. (Click the last link to see one causing a lot of damage to a power line.)
Want to learn more about California’s balloon laws? Check out California Penal Code section 653.1.
Now, besides their direct safety hazards to humans; balloons of both latex and mylar material are also very dangerous to wildlife, our oceans, and our environment.
“At best, free-flying balloons become litter; at worst, they jeopardize wildlife. Once airborne, they can travel far afield and often end up joining the flotsam riding the world’s oceans. One that was unleashed in a science fair experiment to investigate wind direction was retrieved on an island 1,300 miles from its release site. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identifies balloons as a commonly reported source of marine debris.” Eileen Andreason, Audubon
Balloons that end up floating in the ocean can be eaten by various marine animals and pose direct threats to their safety. For example, scientists have found numerous animals entangled in the string of balloons or deceased from consuming the indigestible material. Additionally, balloon pollution contributes to the North Atlantic Garbage Patch floating about 100 miles off of our coast. This is an area of our ocean that is filled with litter that has not yet or will not biodegrade over time. Sadly, scientists have recorded over 1.9 million small bits of plastic per square mile in one of our oceans “garbage patches”.
“About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia.” – National Geographic
Now if this doesn’t encourage you to reduce, reuse, and recycle – I am not sure what will. And yes, one person can make a difference.
Finally, I hate to look at the below images, but if we are going to inspire a cultural shift away from many plastics and items such as balloons, I believe it is important that they are shared with the public. Not only do they show just how serious of a threat needless balloon pollution can cause, but they also show how just one person changing their habits can potentially save an animal’s life.
So, now that you know – it is up to you to be the difference. However, should you still choose to use balloons here are some tipis on ways to more efficiently discard of them.
However, I encourage you to start a new celebratory tradition instead of balloons! Consider using flowers or edible arrangements as center pieces/gifts at events. Start a new tradition of planting a flower in your garden or elsewhere to commemorate a special anniversary or birthday! Use the money you would purchase balloons with to save or give instead. And perhaps (if you are feeling really brave) share your reason for avoiding balloons with others.
After all, the ultimate gift we can give each other and future generations is a healthy planet filled with beautiful wildlife!
I hope that you found this article of some interest and that it inspires you to do something different this year for the sake of our planet’s wildlife (and the work of our electric companies). We are fortunate to have the ability to celebrate life – and we should absolutely not stop doing so. But lets find an alternative to balloons. The sooner we each start making these small changes, the sooner the trend will catch on!
Thank you for reading!
(Information provided by National Geographic, Audobon Society, T&D World, and Balloons Blow)