This research project began simply: I wanted to write about alternatives to balloon releases.
Wait–do you know what a balloon release is? It’s meant as a memorial or celebration, and it involves the release of a bunch of helium balloons. You let them go, watch them rise up and fade away from view, and feel happy or get a sense of closure or whatever it is you’re going for.
Anyway… I wanted to write about alternatives, so I Googled “balloon release.”
And I kept getting all these results from various balloon sellers and balloon manufacturers, telling me that all that hype about the negative effects of balloon releases is all bunk.
So obviously, I dug deeper. I thought, “Hmm, is it possible that the negative effects of balloon releases are exaggerated? I took the two main claims from these seller and manufacturer sites–that latex balloons biodegrade, and that they do not harm wildlife–and I did my own research.
Here’s what I found:
How quickly do latex balloons biodegrade? Don’t believe what you’re told. The following quotation from the website of the National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers is typical of what pretty much every balloon seller says about the biodegradability of latex balloons, often using identical wording:
Research was carried out in July 1989 with a variety of balloons under various conditions to accurately gauge the time needed for the latex to degrade. Results from this study indicate that the decomposition time for balloons is about the same rate as an oak leaf (6 months).
The same sites also generally include the statement that fully-inflated balloons burst apart into very small pieces that fall down to the ground, implying that any balloons or balloon pieces that are found littering the environment are the fault of the person inflating the balloon, not the balloon manufacturer. They claim that latex balloons, as well, don’t leach the harmful chemicals that other plastics do.
So what is the name of this study that proves these statements? Who are its authors? What journal published it? Who peer-reviewed it?
I wasted more hours of my morning than I care to admit searching my local university’s online database of scholarly articles, looking for the study referenced here, only to finally find out that the report had been released by the National Association of Balloon Artists, itself.
A more recent study found in this graduate thesis analyzes that report and the findings are very critical of it for its lack of verifiable data and faults in the parameters of its experiments. It is simply not a scientifically valid study, and its results shouldn’t be disseminated as fact, no matter that they often are treated as fact by those defending balloon releases.
That graduate thesis, however, is a must-read if you’re interested in experiential data on balloon releases.
And, of course, nobody is even attempting to claim that non-latex balloons biodegrade. Here’s a first-person anecdote from a wildlife rehabilitator about finding balloons actually floating on top of the ocean. And here’s a 3-year photo diary (from an anti-balloon release organization) of a balloon that just. Won’t. Biodegrade.
Balloon releases are bad for animals.
If you’re not willing to simply believe the statement that latex balloons fall to earth in tiny particles and biodegrade in six months, then obviously you have to believe that there are balloons littering the ground. The next question, then, is this:
Do animals eat them or get tangled up in them?
Conservationist groups say yes. But is this a problem?
Again, conservationist groups say yes, mainly for marine life. A study conducted in Wales found that helium balloons had minimally impacted their land environment, but you can Google for yourself for the many reported incidents of marine life dying or becoming injured as a result of balloons. It’ll be like a little game for yourself–look for reports with first-person or verifiable data.
So where does that leave us at the end of all this research?
Honestly, I think it leaves us without the balloons.
Photo credit: balloon release image via Shutterstock