After writing an article on traditions that are terrible for the environment, I received overwhelming feedback that balloon releases should have been included on the list. Never one to disappoint, I decided to do some research on the topic and what I found was incredibly chilling. When it comes to wildlife and natural resources, balloons are an absolute menace.
There’s no arguing that balloon releases are beautiful — and the intent behind them is admittedly positive — but when the balloons make their way back down to the earth (or water), there are serious consequences that most people never see.
When balloons make their descent, the best we can hope for is that they become nothing more than unsightly litter. Unfortunately, plastic pollution is a real problem — especially in the world’s oceans — and balloons only add to the mess.
The two most commonly used balloon types are latex and mylar. Owing to its biodegradability, latex is widely considered a safe option. However, testing has shown that decomposition can take anywhere from six months to four years — giving it plenty of time to cause harm. Mylar balloons are composed of synthetic nylon with a metallic coating. They are non-biodegradable, and therefore altogether ill-advised.
Both marine and terrestrial animals frequently mistake deflated balloons as food. Sea turtles are particularly vulnerable, as balloons are easily confused for their jellyfish prey. Once ingested, balloons can cause stomach or intestinal blockages, eventually leading to starvation.
The strings or ribbons attached to balloons can be just as dangerous. Birds become entangled, and sea turtles, seals, and dolphins have flippers and fins snared — their movement is restricted and their ability to feed compromised. These entanglements can cause infections, amputations, starvation, drowning, and death.
Although it is the second most abundant element in the universe, helium is relatively rare on earth. It cannot be manufactured, and once it’s released into the atmosphere, it quickly escapes into space. Helium is very important — we use it in MRI scanners, fiber optics, welding, cooling nuclear reactors, cryogenics, lasers, LCDs, rare document preservation, and breathing ventilators for infants. We need affordable helium for these products, and simply can’t continue to waste it on balloons.
What to Use Instead of Balloons
A world without balloons doesn’t have to be devoid of color or joy. There are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives we can use.
When commemorating lost loved ones, consider floating a small number of native flowers or flower petals down a river or stream to provide a sense of letting go. You can also light candles, plant trees, or spread wildflower seed bombs. If you must release something into the air, use flying wish papers. They create very little ash and give you the same effect of a balloon release without hurting the environment.
For parties, opt for decorations that can be reused or recycled. Tissue paper pompoms — or better yet, reusable fabric buntings or fabric tassels — are not only adorably eye-catching, they can be made at home in a flash. And kids love joining in on the DIY fun. If you’re looking for something a little more interactive, ribbon dancers and pinwheels are both fantastic options. Not only are they beautiful, but they also require people to move around to enjoy them!
It’s time for our love affair with balloons to come to an end. We don’t need them. There are so many other ways to celebrate — ways that don’t kill wildlife and waste precious natural resources. So I challenge you, the next time you consider buying balloons, choose an alternative. The planet will thank you.
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock. Originally published on April 4, 2017, this article was updated in July 2020.
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