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.
P.S. Balloons also freak out adorable cats.
Photo credit: balloon release image via Shutterstock
3 CommentsLeave a Reply
Thanks for this article! Anytime I’ve ever mentioned the negative impact of balloons on the environment, I get looked at like I just dissed Santa Clause! But we don’t need studies or statistics; It’s common sense. Balloon releases, although lovely to look at, are just a means of releasing garbage into the air – garbage which will eventually fall to earth or get stuck in trees and overhead cables. As an animal advocate, my goal is always to protect animals from the negative effects of human action. In this case it’s not only the latex and helium we should be concerned about, but the ribbons or strings which are usually attached to the balloons. I’ve seen animals tangled up in these and unable to get free. If they get wrapped around the animal’s neck, the poor victim is slowly strangled. And if an animal is unfortunate enough to eat the ribbon or string, it can easily get twisted up in the animal’s intestines. So yes, balloons are a right of childhood, but do we really want to teach our children to not care about things which negatively impact so many lives? At the very least, balloon manufacturers need to come up with a biodegradable alternative!
I’ve been in the balloon business 33 years. Balloons will break down in the bags they came in usually within the year. I have to turn my stock. And they are kept out of sun light, away from moisture, and in moderate temperatures. Add all the above and they will breakdown a lot quicker. Latex comes from the rubber tree. Same as condoms. All the more reason not trust your life to a thin piece of latex. Also latex is porous even if it’s not in the rotting stage. I have a few breaking down in the back of my van which had been inflated and stretched. They are less than a month old.
Never release balloons tied together and always cut the ribbon off. Never release foil balloons.
I wonder how many animals get caught in fishing line? That is something I never hope to be caught in. And kite string is another one.
Cindy, not only fishing lines and kite strings, but also plastic wraps from drink cans, old casting nets that get tossed, plastic shopping bags, so much more. I did find this article on balloon releases interesting as we had one planned for a wedding soon. Guess not now…..