Balloons blow; it’s a catchy slogan, and a very appropriate one. While the sight of a colorful balloon floating free can be a cheerful one, and balloon releases can be seen as celebratory, inspirational, or emotional whether they are released for simple joy, to highlight an event such as a wedding or party, or in remembrance of a loved one. But how have balloons gotten such a bad reputation, and is it deserved?
What Is a Balloon?
At its most basic, a balloon is a bag or pouch of rubber, latex, mylar nylon fabric, polypropylene, or some other flexible material filled with air or gas such as nitrous oxide or helium. Depending on the gas it is filled with, a balloon may float or sink, and depending on the bag’s material, it may retain its shape for several hours, days, or even weeks.
The first rubber balloons were invented by English scientist Michael Faraday in 1824, and were intended for scientific experiments. Today, scientific balloons still have many uses, including…
- Tiny balloons to inflate blood vessels in angioplasty surgeries
- Weather balloons for tracking air currents, storm systems, etc.
- Military balloons that are used for observation or surveillance
Individual laboratories can also use balloons for gas pressure experiments and a wide variety of other, specialized applications.
Balloons are much more widely used for entertainment and decorative purposes, including…
- Party decorations, including arches, bunches, and sculptures
- Entertaining toys when balloons are bent and folded into shapes
- Drops and releases at celebrations, such as New Year’s Eve
- Generating excitement at rallies, unveilings, and other occasions
- Advertising for businesses, fairs, open houses, etc.
- Commemorations at wakes and similar memorial events
- Water balloons for fun competitions and summer parties
- Art installations such as sculptures and creative arrangements
- Sports competitions for balloon aerialists and fliers
The largest, most dramatic balloons are even used for transportation, as in hot air balloons, airships, tethered balloons, and other esoteric traveling and sightseeing methods.
The Problems With Balloons
Despite all their fun and festive uses, however, even the prettiest, most cheerful balloons have downfalls. Balloons filled with light gasses that lift and float away are the most problematic, and may fly hundreds or even thousands of miles before enough gas leaks and the balloon falls, becoming unsightly litter. Depending on the size of the balloon or whether it is single or in a bunch as well as its material, a discarded, forgotten balloon can…
- Get tangled in wires to cause power outages or spark fires that may destroy tremendous swaths of habitat or hundreds of homes
- Be mistaken for food by marine wildlife such as sea turtles, albatrosses, puffins, penguins, dolphins, and other animals
- Be mistaken for fruit or food scraps by other wildlife, including birds, raccoons, livestock, and even pets
- Be used as nesting material by songbirds or raptors, which could lead to tangling injuries including limb amputations
- Become tangled in boat propellers, aircraft engines, or other equipment, causing overloads and other damage
While non-lifting balloons such as those that are used in drops or toy sculpting are less problematic, if they are not disposed of properly they can still cause environmental problems.
The problems continue when we look inside balloons. The helium used to fill so many billions of balloons is a relatively limited resource necessary for more essential applications. Helium is critical for MRI machines for medical diagnoses, refrigeration and cryogenics, semiconductor production for consumer electronics, leak detection in sealed environments, breathable mixtures for deep sea diving and treating breathing difficulties such as asthma, cleaning rocket fuel tanks, and inflating vehicle airbags. If more and more helium is wasted on decorative balloons, these other applications will become even more expensive as helium become scarce.
But Balloons Are Biodegradable!
Many balloons are marketed as biodegradable with the idea that they’re safer for the environment. Unfortunately, this is disingenuous advertising that – while not entirely false – is also not entirely true. Yes, some latex blends used for balloons will eventually degrade, but the process takes months or years, giving the balloon plenty of time to cause environmental problems and endanger wildlife. The speed of biodegrading also depends on where the balloon is – research has shown that when balloons land in trees or on the ground, they can take several years to degrade, while balloons that land in marine environments such as lakes or oceans can stay intact even longer.
Furthermore, while some of the balloon may degrade, the strings or ribbons attached to it may not, and will cause difficulties of their own. Different types of balloons are made of different materials and may not decompose at all. Shiny mylar balloons, for example, have metallic coatings (hence the shininess), and do not decompose at all.
With all the risks balloons pose and the problems they cause, there’s no reason to continue using them. Fortunately, there are dozens of alternatives that are safer for the environment and can offer just as much beauty and symbolism as any balloons. Instead of releasing these floating bits of litter into birds’ habitats, consider…
- Remembrance Plants – Colorful flowers, a commemorative tree planting, or other green options can help create rather than destroy habitat.
- Streamers and Flags – If balloons are used to gain attention, the same eye-catching displays can be created with fluttering streamers, flags, or windsocks.
- Tissue Sculptures – For light and airy decorations, opt for tissue paper sculptures such as pom-poms, spheres, paper flowers, bunting, garlands, globes, etc.
- Candles – The soft glow of a candle can be a beautiful, romantic decoration or a gentle memorial. Floating candles and luminaria are stunning options.
- Bubbles – For a fun and festive touch, blowing bubbles is a great alternative to balloons. Use eco-friendly soap, and consider individual bubbles or giant bubbles.
- Color Themes – Catch attention and create memories with bold color themes. Coordinated displays, matching t-shirts, and colored linens can all be used with symbolic colors for a great statement.
- Supporting Wildlife Rehabilitation – Sponsor birds or other favorite animals at zoos or aviaries, or contact a wild bird rehab center for the chance to release a healed bird in celebration or remembrance.
Personally, I’ve always loved balloons, but as I’ve learned of their dangers I’ve tempered my love and do not release any of this litter deliberately. Instead, I may enjoy an indoor balloon until it deflates, at which time it is properly punctured and disposed of where it cannot get into the environment. I also make a point to collect any discarded balloons I see while out walking, and have even pulled over on the roadside to pick up deflated, fallen balloons. I choose not to give balloons as gifts, and I try not to support events that may include balloon releases.
Every little step we all take can be helpful to birds. What steps will you take? Share your ideas in the comments so we can all do better for birds!