Are balloons bad for the environment?

Topics Discussed

Balloons lead to litter and waste

Most balloons are made using either mylar or latex materials. The presence of added chemicals means that balloons remain in the environment for many months if not years (since conventional balloons do not biodegrade).

In 2013, school students in Derby, England, released 300 balloons into the sky in an attempt to measure how far balloons travel once ‘airborne’. Some balloons were later found in both Denmark and The Netherlands, and one balloon was even traced back as far as New South Wales, Australia (over 10,000 miles away), according to the Daily Mail.

The remains of balloon and balloon string waste can be prominently seen across almost all polluted green and marine areas around the world today. According to some research, “the number of balloons found on beaches and coastlines has reportedly tripled over the past decade”.

Further down in this post we discuss the use of biodegradable balloons as a substitute to conventional balloons, and whether or not such balloons are a safe environmental alternative.

Balloons cause harm and death to animals

Aside from the environmental damages that arise as a result of balloon pollution, marine and animal wildlife also feel the consequences of such pollution. Many animals ingest balloon debris, mistaking them for food, which leads to adverse health conditions due to chemically rich and toxic ingredients used in balloon manufacturing. 

In smaller creatures, balloon debris often ends up stuck inside organs, resulting in the blocking of passages or tracts (resulting in starvation, choking and/or drowning). The Balloon Council is an example of an organisation that spends millions of dollars in an effort to raise awareness and help prevent large scale balloon events from occurring. 

Balloon strings also cause harm and distress to both marine and animal wildlife. In particular, bird species are often found dead and injured as a result of balloon ribbons strangling around their bodies.

Some research has even revealed that, after examining more than 1,700 birds, balloon pollution is responsible for around 42% of all plastic-related bird deaths.

Balloons wastes helium (one of earth’s natural resources)

Balloons are of course filled using helium – a relatively scarce / finite resource here on earth (however in the universe as a whole, it is one of the most common elements). Since helium also has many other purposes (i.e. hospital MRI patient-scans, hospital ventilators and even used for fiber optics), wasting helium on balloons doesn’t make a whole lot of sense! 

Helium has unique properties with regard to it’s extremely low boiling point (-269C) – making it a valuable element that should be preserved for necessary measures. Although in the near future we don’t have to worry about helium supplies running out, in the future, it would be rather illogical to think that we wasted our only helium supplies on balloon spectacles!

According to Dr. Cathy Foley, the chief of CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering, “When you buy a helium balloon, you might get it for $3.50, but the helium in that is really worth about $35 so it’s seriously underpriced.” This valuation puts helium balloons into context.

balloons environment

Do biodegradable balloons exist?

In terms of conventional (helium-based) balloons that are capable of decomposing, this is a grey area / paradox in terms of their environmental safety. Technically, latex balloons are considered as biodegradable, although since they can take anywhere from 6 months to 4 years to decompose, the chances of littering / causing harm to animals remains very likely.

According to the New York Times, “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.”

Therefore, it is safest to avoid all types of balloons, however if you really have no choice, opting for a natural latex balloon that has been responsibly sourced is of course better than buying a conventional balloon.

What to use instead of balloons?

The spectacle of a balloon / illuminated item ‘floating into the sky’ can of course be substituted with various eco friendly alternatives. Some examples include:

– Giant bubbles
– Candles
– Paper flowers
– Pinwheels

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