The after-party balloon effect: disastrous consequences of balloon releases

This is a guest post by Maria Karousiou, who reached out to directly to contribute. 

Author: Maria Karousiou has studied Chemistry at the University of Sheffield,UK and has earned her Master’s in Polymers and Colours from University of Leeds in 2017. She’s interested in human impacts on the environment and the efforts being done for climate change. Outside of science she enjoys writing, reading, cooking and travelling. Twitter: @MKarousiou

The untold dark side of balloons

The balloons we have all seen at birthday parties, fairs, weddings, and other festivities do not make a great after-party-guest. Coastal cleanups in over 150 countries over the past 25 years have recorded over 1.2 million balloons (Ocean Conservancy 2011 Report) that have washed up on shores. Plastic pollution in the ocean is a global concern. At the same time, global plastic production is rapidly rising, with a doubling of production every 11 years since commercial production began in the 1950s (Plastics Europe Analysis 2013). Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to this pollution which can mistake the floating trash for food (Derraik 2002 and Roman et al. 2016). The shocking and worrisome prediction is that by 2050, 99% of all seabird species will ingest marine debris of some sort (Wilcox et al. 2015). Marine debris, by definition, according to the act of the Code of Federal Regulations of United States of America, is “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes”.

No balloon goes to heaven

Several studies have focused on the impacts of balloon as marine debris. When released into the environment, balloons rise to the height of about 8 km, where they fragment into long strands (Burchette 1989). Initially festive, these brightly-coloured symbols of celebration pose a risk, especially to marine life. According to research of University of Tasmania, balloons are the number one mortality risk due to marine debris for seabirds: Ingestion of a balloon or balloon fragment is 32 times more likely to kill than the ingestion of hard plastic (Roman et al. 2019). The leading cause of death was blockage of the gastro-intestinal tract, the system in the body which includes all the organs necessary for digestion and proceed to excretion. The effect: slow painful death through starvation. Although soft plastics accounted for only 5% of items the seabirds ingested, these plastics were responsible for more than 40% of probable and known mortalities.

Procellariiformes are seabirds with the highest incidence of marine debris ingestion and the most threatened bird group globally. They comprise of 127 species including albatrosses, shearwater, and storm-petrels. Procellariiformes typically feed on epipelagic fish, squid and crustacean though species-specific feeding behavior of and colour of debris can lead to plastic ingestion. A 2016 study along the Australian coast showed that short-tailed shearwater, who usually feed on red arrow squid, ingested 82% of all balloons recorded in the study found in deceased birds (Roman et al. 2016) . Of the 37 balloons fragments ingested, 54% were red/pink and 32% were orange. Ingestion of debris when foraging, due to resemblance to prey, is of particular concern. Apart from seabirds, balloons also pose a high risk for marine mammals and turtles (Wilcox et al. 2016). For example, an assessment of deceased sea turtles discovered that balloons or balloon fragments accounted for 78% of rubber in stomach contents (Schuyler et al. 2012).

Biodegradable balloons?

Biodegradable materials break down into basic particles through natural means and in a way that it is not harmful to the environment. The balloon industry claims that latex balloons are biodegradable. While natural rubber latex is produced by over 2,000 plant species, even biodegradation of this material is a slow process (Rose and Steinbuhel 2005) and can take several years to decompose. Imagine how much more it would take for a chemically treated latex! In the process of making balloons, artificial dyes, plasticizers, accelerators are added (Nilsson 2007) . According to Rubber Technology, natural latex is also treated with ammonia, thiuram and zinc oxide to preserve it from bacterial decomposition (The New York Times 1990). The addition of these additional chemical compounds can further impact the environment as the balloons slowly decompose in waters and chemicals leach out.

Other balloons, like Mylar or foil balloons, which consist of a type of nylon coated by a thin layer of foil, usually aluminium, are not biodegradable and either are balloon accessories. Ribbons and plastic clips that end up in the marine environment can also cause entanglement and death of wildlife.

What can we do? #BalloonsBlow

Mass balloon releases are commonly used in sporting events, funerals, memorials and celebrations. An example is this May 26, 2019 mass balloon release at the Indy 500, a car racing event, that created quite a stir on social media:

In several states, cities and countries, mass balloon releases are illegal. However, releasing balloons should be illegal everywhere because the aftermath is disastrous. Environmentally-friendly alternatives such as tissue paper pompoms, pinwheels and bunting can be used. BalloonsBlow is a non-profit organization which provides information to increase awareness about the destructive effects balloon releases have on animals, people and the environment. was created by two sisters who began to see a massive increase in the number of balloons found when cleaning beaches in Florida. Going online they found out that the only information on the internet was balloon propaganda and so created for people to get informed about balloons. To combat balloon industry’s claims about balloon biodegradability they did biodegradability backyard test using two latex balloons that floated in from the sea and were then placed in natural setting for observation. The result was that the balloons did not degrade even after 6 years of exposure to natural conditions. Through infopics, fact sheets, photos and studies are some of the ways the organization is trying to increase balloon awareness. Visiting their website, you can see there are numerous ways to get involved as well.

Also, a documentary named “Rubber jellyfish” was released in 2018 by Carly Wilson which describes the effects of released helium balloons, in particular on sea turtles (Rubber Jellyfish Trailer) (About the film).  As consumers, we have much more power than we think, we have the power to change many problems in the world that jeopardize wildlife and the Earth itself just by being careful what we buy and how we dispose waste.

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Laura Schifman

I earned my PhD from the University of Rhode Island in Environmental Science with a focus on Hydrology in 2014. I have a fascination for the urban environment and clean water. So, what better way to combine that than working in stormwater? Aside from the sciency stuff I enjoy torturing myself on long bike rides, playing volleyball or tennis, riding horses, making anything edible (I miss the lab work), or playing cards. Twitter: L_Schifman