Balloon releases are terrible for the environment!
They are typically done at funerals or memorials (49%), weddings (12%), or sporting events (7%). For example, The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a tradition that dates back to the 1940s of releasing thousands of balloons before the start of the Indianapolis “Indy” 500.
As you can see, the emotional reaction of balloon releases is a driving factor for having them included in these events, like memorials. The mass release of balloons has even been described as cathartic.
But when you release a balloon, or a few thousand, they don’t just go away, those balloons have to go somewhere. And the environmental impact, the litter, that these releases cause is what makes this tradition so terrible for our environment.
Let’s start with how balloons may get snagged on trees or power lines on their ascent. On trees they’re litter, but did you know that when metallic or foil balloons get snagged on power lines, they can cause electrical outages? Though no definitive nationwide data exists, some power companies estimate that 16-20% of their annual outages are due to balloons.
Once airborne, balloons can travel long distances... but not so long that they’ll disintegrate in the atmosphere or travel to space, because well, that’s just not possible. What goes up must come down.
Balloons can travel hundreds of miles before bursting or deflating. Did you know that a balloon that was released during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan in 1998 was found in Los Angeles, California just 49 hours later? That’s a distance of approximately 5,300 miles!
These balloons can also wash up onto our shores. The Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup reports that from 2008 to 2016 almost 300,000 balloons were found along U.S. beaches.
Harming and Killing Marine Life
Once balloons deflate and make their way back down to Earth, they’ll usually end up in our oceans. As colorful and shiny marine debris, balloons can be easily mistaken for food by marine life like turtles and seabirds.
If eaten and ingested, balloons can lead to loss of nutrition, internal injury, starvation, and death. The string or ribbon that is attached to balloons can also cause entanglement, injury, illness, and suffocation.
Now at this point you’re probably thinking that the solution to all our problems is to just stop releasing balloons. And you’re totally right.
But the emotional stimuli that a balloon release provides is a significant barrier to preventing balloon releases. That’s why the emotional gratification drawn from a balloon release event must be replaced with alternative practices that offer their own, different gratification and meaning for participants.
There’s also a general lack of knowledge around this issue. For example, many people don’t understand that there is no such thing as an “environmentally friendly” balloon. Every released balloon becomes litter and can be harmful, even if it’s labeled as “biodegradable.”
Many people assume that “biodegradable” also means “harmless” and that’s just not the case. “Biodegradable” is the new “eco-friendly, “ as there are no legal standards for what can be labeled as biodegradable.
Many people also assume that if they do a balloon release in a suburban or rural area, their distance from the ocean reduces the potential to harm marine life. But remember that balloon that traveled 5,000 miles?
At the end of the day, balloon releases are terrible for the environment and should be avoided at all costs. A quick search on the internet can provide you with alternatives, or we suggest this informational site, "Balloons Blow, Don't Let Them Go," for more information and sustainable alternatives.