Balloons pose a risk to wildlife & the environment
by Debra Duncan, ENC Intern
Balloons may look nice, but they have a number of environmental concerns associated with them.
What goes up must come down. Balloons are hazards when they enter the environment. All released balloons, whether they are released intentionally or not, return to Earth as ugly litter – including those marketed as “biodegradable latex”. Balloons kill countless animals and cause dangerous power outages. They can travel thousands of miles and pollute the most remote and pristine places.
Balloons return to the land and sea where they can be mistaken for food and eaten by animals. Sea turtles, dolphins, whales, fish and birds have been reported with balloons in their stomachs and ribbons and strings can lead to entanglement, causing death.
BALLOONS AND THEIR BIO-DEGRADABLE NATURE
There are two types of balloons in general use – latex and mylar.
Although latex balloons are considered bio-degradable, this will take anywhere from 6 months to 4 years to decompose and they can wreak a lot of havoc before they do.
In one experiment researchers observed that balloons floating in seawater deteriorated much slower, and even after 12 months, still retained their elasticity.
“Latex balloons float for just 10 hours, but can take a year or more to degrade, long enough to repeatedly wrap around or be ingested by turtles, sea birds and marine mammals. Scientists who work with stranded whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles have found balloons, parts of balloons and balloon string in the stomachs of many of these dead animals. In 2003, volunteers collected 4,228 mylar and latex balloons just from New Jersey beaches.” Patricia Sullivan, Honolulu Environmental Policy Examiner 2010 (Balloons kill marine animals)
Mylar balloons are not classified bio-degradable and should not be released.
Mylar balloons are made with mylar nylon, a material developed for use with the US space program. Balloons made from mylar are often coated with a metallic finish and are available in a variety of shapes and imprinted designs.
Mylar balloons are far less friendly to the environment — they are made from metalicized polyester, which is dirty in both production and disposal.
The PROBLEMS They Pose:
Danger to Wildlife
Inflated balloons that make their way back to earth or water, pose a risk for wildlife due to their probability of becoming ingested due to attractive color or their ribbons and tassels forming the perfect trap for animals to become entangled.
“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 (How do balloons affect wildlife?)
Danger to the Environment
“For years, biologists have documented the negative impacts of latex balloons on marine wildlife. More recently, researchers have seen devastating evidence of what they can do to terrestrial wildlife as well.” Outdoor California, Rebecca Barboza 2010 (Floating Menace)
“Natural latex is biodegradable and environmentally safe, but, according to Rubber Technology, it is treated with ammonia and with tetramethyl thiuram disulfide plus zinc oxide as a preservative against bacterial decomposition. Balloons are usually made with a small amount of plasticizer added. They hardly classify as natural after all that. In fact, sewage treatment plant operators report that latex is one of several problem materials that are not affected by the biological treatment system.” Peter C. Hibbard, New York Times 1990 (Balloons’ Effect On the Environment)
Marine debris is a big concern for the EPA. What balloons don’t fall inland will usually fall in the ocean. Then, they run the potential of adding to an already large problem 100 miles or so off the coast — the North Atlantic Garbage Patch.
A report found on the website of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) titled Ocean Conservancy Beach Debris Data shows 1000’s of balloons pulled from waterways and the coast. The Ocean Trash Index presents state-by-state and country-by-country data about ocean trash collected and tallied by volunteers around the world on one day each fall during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup®
Cleanups alone can’t solve this pollution problem. Nevertheless, the Ocean Trash Index provides a snapshot of what’s trashing our ocean so we can work to prevent specific items from reaching the water in the first place.
It is for that reason that a handful of states including but not limited to California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, New York, Texas and Virginia have recently passed legislation restricting the release of balloons not used in scientific experiment.
Blue Ocean Society researchers have been recording debris observed from whale watch boats off the New England coasts for over 8 years. Balloons have become the most common debris over the last 5 years.
How Green is Helium?
Unfortunately, helium itself has a fairly significant ecological footprint. While it is not pollutive, it is unsustainable. In fact, we’re running out of easy-to-access helium quickly, because of its extensive use in unnecessary products such as balloons. We need affordable helium for other products we treasure, such as MRI scanners, fiber optics and LCD screens. While we will never truly run out of helium (it is always present in the air) it is important to never be wasteful of any valuable resource.
“Unfortunately, the depletion of the nation’s helium supply affects a lot more than balloons.” Art Young, Helium 2010 (How the world’s helium is being depleted)
“Wars are fought over oil, diamonds, water, gold, religion, pride, food, …and balloons! Because for the past few years there has been a war of words, between the multi-million dollar balloon industry and environmentalists. Despite balloonaholics bombarding anybody who will listen with rather suspect evidence to the contrary, the facts suggest that balloons released into the environment really do pose a serious threat to wildlife – and any threat to wildlife today is a threat we could well do without, especially when it comes from something as utterly pointless as a balloon release.” Steve Polkinghorne, Wildlife Extra
“Balloons are perceived as a celebration of life: The birth of a child, grand openings, fairs, birthdays, get well wishes, and anniversaries, among others. But for marine animals, balloons may mean death, as do other forms of plastic. Balloons are ingested by whales, dolphins, turtles, seals, fish and water-fowl, who innocently believe they are food such as jellyfish or squid. ONCE YOU KNOW BALLOONS BRING DEATH, YOU CAN ACT.” Save the Whales
Instead of Balloon Releases:
- Blow Bubbles!
- Flags, banners, streamers, & dancing inflatables– Many businesses are realizing the benefits of using reusable eye-catching signage. Colorful streamers, flags and banners save money and time over balloons, ribbons and helium. They are also weather resistant, save Helium, and can be reused again and again!
- Kites & garden spinners– Vibrant fabric that dance in the high winds or eye-catching colors spinning in the garden. Unlike balloons, kites and spinners can be enjoyed for years.
- Tissue Paper Pompoms– For some color burst at parties or celebrations tissue paper pompoms are spectacular! These pretty, colorful poof balls can be easily made at home and are reusable. They are also fun activities for kids to make too!
- Drumming– The drum has been called the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Using drums to celebrate does not create waste or cause danger to wildlife. The beat brings people together and can be used for any occasion.
- Plant in remembrance– A great way to honor and remember a loved one or an important issue is to bring more life to our planet. By planting a native tree, flower garden or butterfly garden you are not only giving life to that plant you are also providing shelter, resources, and clean air to all kinds of wildlife and people. This remembrance will last a very long time and you can visit your tree or flower bed as much as you want and create more life by doing so!
- Donate books to a local library, food to a local food bank, or pet food to a local animal shelter to celebrate your group’s achievement or to honor a loved one.
What you can do to help our wildlife and our environment:
- Never release a balloon into the air.
- Pick up any balloons or ribbons you find and dispose of them properly
- For favors or centerpieces, choose edible or plantable items, which are less likely to end up in the trash. Buy local flowers or plants from farmers markets or farm stands, or, for real freshness, find a “pick your own” location.
- If for any reason you end up with a balloon, when done with it, please make sure to pop it and dispose of it properly (cut the string/ribbon off, cut it up and put it into a trash container)
The Telegraph, May 2011 “Farming and conservation groups are demanding a ban on mass releases of balloons and Chinese lanterns because of the deadly threat they pose to livestock and other wildlife.”
Los Angeles Times, 1994 “Investigators found pieces of balloons scattered near the crash area, and investigators concluded that the balloons may have been sucked into the plane’s engines. ..A witness on horseback heard a popping noise and saw what looked like a flare and some confetti fall away from the plane as it rolled and nose-dived.”
SafeElectricity.org Mylar Balloon Safety “Each year, hundreds of thousands of consumers experience power outages caused by Mylar balloons contacting electrical equipment.”
BBC News October 2011 “An owl has been found dead apparently after becoming tangled up in a Chinese lantern at a Gloucestershire farm.”
Newser.com February 2013 “Florida Highway Patrol trooper was watching too, and deemed the act an environmental crime.” “..charged with a third-degree felony under the rarely used Florida Air and Water Pollution Control Act.”
“… If this path continues to be followed, within the next ten to fifteen years the United States will become a net importer of helium whose principal foreign sources of helium will be in the Middle East and Russia.”
Balloon ribbons cause problems of their own when they are picked up by birds, such as osprey, as nesting material. The ribbons in nests can get wound around the birds or nestlings, causing death by strangulation or starvation.