Balloons can be beautiful, but they often turn into litter

Published 9:56 am Monday, June 18, 2018

Balloons are festive and lots of people like to use them when decorating for parties, but they are really terrible for the environment. They are basically just plastic filled with air or helium. It’s just another one-use plastic that quickly becomes trash.

When the balloons are used outside, not only are they quickly trash but they pose a big threat to wildlife. Even if you are not intentionally releasing balloons, they can get loose and can travel great distances before popping and becoming litter on the ground. At that point there is no one there to clean them up. Animals will often ingest the balloons, which can harm or kill them. Even if animals aren’t eating the balloons, they can get tangled up in balloon strings, which can cause lots of issues for the wildlife.

Some companies like to claim that latex balloons are biodegradable so people can feel better about buying them. It’s actually a pretty awful marketing trick and I don’t like it because they make you feel like you can have your cake and eat it too.

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Some companies compare the biodegradability of the latex balloons to oak leaves. That claim might not be wrong, but it’s super misleading. For one thing, you are not comparing apples to apples. An oak leaf is a part of nature; it belongs in nature. A balloon is a piece of man-made trash. When you talk about leaves biodegrading, you may think that’s a quick process. But oak leaves take a long time to decompose — up to four years.

It’s also worth noting if an animal eats an oak leaf, there’s no problem. If an animal eats a balloon before it’s done decomposing, they cannot digest it and it can make them sick or kill them.

Beyond the problem of escaped balloons littering our world, it’s also not great that we waste so much of a precious and finite resource — helium. But that’s another column.

The bottom line is that it’s wasteful to use balloons and it’s irresponsible to release balloons.

Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware of how problematic balloons can be. As a result, you often see balloon releases, where hundreds or thousands of balloons are intentionally released into air.

I just learned this year that every year at the Indy 500, they release thousands of balloons before the start of the race. It’s evidently a tradition that started in 1947, according to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Back in 1947, I can believe that people didn’t truly understand the impact that the balloons might have on the wildlife and the environment. But we have the evidence and knowledge of how our actions impact nature now — there is no excuse to continue this practice.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is literally throwing a whole bunch of trash into the air and littering for miles and miles around every year. It is polluting its own city and the surrounding areas because there is no way to control where a balloon goes once it is released.

There are many alternatives to having balloons and releasing balloons. There are other ways to honor someone or mark an occasion that do not result in throwing garbage into our environment.

Some alternatives to balloons at a party include paper streamers, paper or plastic banners that can be reused, ribbons, flags, garland, tissue-paper pom poms and pinwheels. You can get really creative with your ideas and don’t need to have balloons to make your event festive.

Alternatives to balloon releases include releasing butterflies or doves; planting a tree or trees, floating flowers down a stream or river (but make sure the flowers are real and native), and using a big bubble machine.

There are so many alternatives that are much less harmful for the environment and will still allow you to have a fun party, honor your loved ones or mark a special occasion.

One great resource to learn more about balloons and their impact on the environment is Balloons Blow —


About Amanda Wheeler

Amanda Wheeler is the children and teen services librarian at the Lincoln County Public Library. She has a master's in zoology education from the University of Miami and has taught as an educator at the Cincinnati Zoo.

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