Since I was a little girl, I have been afraid of balloons for fear of accidentally letting one slip through my fingers and inadvertently causing the strangulation of an innocent dolphin or bird. Upon finding out about an impending balloon release on campus, I shuddered to think of all of the wildlife it might impact. Initially I was reassured that the balloons used would be biodegradable ones, but upon further research realized that all latex balloons are biodegradable, since they are comprised of a mix of organic compounds.
“Biodegradable” is one of those words used by companies to trick consumers into thinking that what they’re purchasing has a neutral, or even positive, effect on the environment. While looking at several sites clearly operated by balloon manufacturers, I repeatedly came across the same claim: “latex balloons biodegrade at the same speed as an oak leaf.” There aren’t any oak trees in my backyard, but leaves seem to disintegrate pretty quickly, right? Wrong! Oak leaves take at least six to eight months to biodegrade, and latex balloons are no different. In fact, when in saltwater, latex balloons can take up to a year to completely degrade. In the meantime, these balloon fragments make their home in major waterways and pose a serious hazard to various types of wildlife that live there.
In the oceans, these floating fragments of balloons end up as “food” for birds and marine
animals. Because balloons are often brightly colored and drift along the surface, many marine animals, such as turtles, dolphins and whales, mistake them for jellyfish or squid. There are many reports of these animals dying after ingesting fragments of the balloon; the balloons get lodged in their stomachs and block the normal passage of food, so the animals die of starvation. Birds and marine animals are also often strangled by the tails of balloons, which do not decompose.
Many balloon companies claim that these effects on the environment are negligible, since most balloons fly five miles up in the air, freeze, and shatter into tiny pieces that are rarely consumed by animals. The problem with this statistic is that a majority of balloons do not rise this high, as strong winds and fair weather is necessary for the balloons to make such a journey. Instead, balloons fall to the ground, littering land and ocean alike.
While the sight of hundreds of balloons headed toward the heavens is poignant, the negative environmental side effects are too serious to justify holding a ceremony of that kind. There are many other symbolic observances that can be just as touching, and much less risky. Try a candle passing, or tie notes with messages of support to a tree (make sure to take down the notes after a few days). For people who have already purchased the balloons and publicized the event, participants could instead write notes and put them inside of the balloons before inflating them. Then, everyone could pop the balloons in unison as a cathartic exercise (of course, make sure they are disposed of properly, but this is much better than releasing them into the air!). If you hear of a planned balloon release in your area, please forward these ideas to the organizers of the event. The dolphins and birds will thank you!