Balloons – not so much fun after all

There is a disturbing new trend afoot: people are now using helium-filled balloon releases to celebrate or commemorate lost loved ones.

Did you watch Blue Planet 2? It was marvellous, wasn’t it? David Attenborough took us on a tour of the world’s oceans and introduced us to the multitude of life to be found there. He also introduced us to the problems that so many forms of sea life are having with pollution – pollution caused by mankind. And womankind. In other words, us.

This pollution takes many forms, from raw sewage discharged from various countries directly into the sea, factory & processing plant effluent, microbeads from cosmetics and the plastics industry, to rafts of floating plastic garbage – including many balloons.

Plastic, and other artificial materials like ribbon, are directly responsible for the torment and agonising deaths of thousands upon thousands, of sea creatures1. Whales, dolphins, and sharks have been found dead from starvation, their stomachs filled with indigestible plastic bags. Seems that a floating plastic bag looks remarkably like a jellyfish to a marine mammal or large predatory fish, and they eat them, dozens of them.  What is a balloon when it’s deflated? That’s right; a plastic – or latex – bag. These bags can’t pass along out from the stomach, and when the stomach is full of plastic, the animal can’t eat. Birds are routinely found strangled with twine or ribbon, and others are found with their legs shackled by plastic, or with their beaks stuck in it, or they drown, having got their wings entangled while diving for fish. Same goes for turtles and terrapins. Do a search on YouTube and you’ll find many examples, if you’ve the stomach for it. And what do released balloons have attached to them? Yep, a long string.

Plastic pollution is just about everywhere in our oceans. To illustrate just how far floating plastic can travel, in 1992 a container load of 28,000 plastic ducks was lost in the Pacific. They are still washing up on shores around the world today – from Alaska to Newfoundland, to the UK, Africa, South America, Australia, and they’ve even been found in the Antarctic ice. Now, not only do balloon releasers expect their balloons to travel a long way, they actually hope they will 2!

We are all becoming very conscious of the need to be more aware about our use and disposal of single-use plastics, are we not? I’m pretty sure you’d all agree with that. But now we come back to that disturbing new trend, because for some reason, these same people have a blind spot when it comes to balloons. Is it because they are pretty, or because they are fun? Probably. People really don’t like their fun curtailed, do they?

So, PLEASE do not add to the general plastic waste problem by releasing balloons into the air. Not to celebrate an important day, not as a memorial to someone, nor anything else. Please. For the love of the deity of your choice, Stop and think. Do you really want to mark your special day, or commemorate a loved one by bringing suffering and death to innocent creatures? I know I don’t. And yet that’s exactly what balloons do, especially the most common, plastic type. Especially those pretty, shiny helium-filled Mylar balloons you can buy for birthday and wedding celebrations, and so many of those end up on the world’s beaches and in the world’s oceans. Even latex balloons with cotton strings have their problems, despite being made of natural, biodegradable materials. The balloons still have strings which are capable of garotting a bird or seal pup, and they still take a long time to degrade. Meanwhile, a half-deflated balloon of any description eaten by a hungry sea creature can asphyxiate that poor creature, or starve it to death. If you want to hear it from a park ranger, go here.

And, by the way, it seems the earth’s helium is a finite resource too, and we’re running low3. This is a problem because it is essential for medical scanners like MRI machines, and for many other scientific applications.

Are you re-thinking that birthday balloon? Yep, me too.

Top image from Pixabay, the rest by kind permission of Balloons Blow.

1 – Nobody keeps track of the numbers, but considering that the largest balloon release on record was 1.4 million balloons in one go, and that 1,359 balloons were collected from British beaches in 2011 by the Marine Conservation Society, I think a guess of ‘many thousands’ is not unrealistic. The number of balloons collected had risen threefold since the previous count, by the way, so it’s also safe to assume it’s still rising.

2 – And then, no doubt, go on holiday to a far-flung, exotic location and expect to find it pristine and litter-free.

3 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/why-the-world-is-running-out-of-helium-2059357.html

Don’t Feed the Magic Reindeer!

You’ve all seen it. It’s on sale at all the craft fairs, it’s available on Amazon, and on eBay to name but three sources. Playgroups and reception classes make it for their children to take home. Someone may even have given some to your children already. I hope that someone wasn’t you, because I have some bad news.

This stuff kills wildlife.

Magic Reindeer Food is sold in little cellophone packets, tied with a festive ribbon and with a cute festive poem on the attached label. If it looks like porridge oats mixed with craft glitter with maybe a few seeds and sequins mixed in, it’s because that’s exactly what it is1. And you know what? Not only is the glitter inedible, it can also contain toxins which are absorbed from that cute little Christmas robin’s gut when he comes bob-bob-bobbing along very early in the morning and eats it before you are even awake2. As if that’s not enough, the sharp edges of the glitter can damage the lining of that gut leaving Mr Robin open to all kinds of diseases.

Of course, robins will not be the only ones to take advantage of the feast. Mice, rats and squirrels will eat it, and so will hedgehogs if they are awake, and hungry enough. Then there are the invertebrates, the slugs, snails, worms, etc.

You might not care too much about the rats, the slugs and the snails, but they will all suffer, because Magic Reindeer Food is pretty indiscriminate. And think about the wider issues; do you imagine that this stuff magically disappears after Christmas? No. It will get washed down into the soil, where it will not only utterly fail to decompose, but may pick up toxins from weedkillers and pesticides, and eventually some will find its way into streams, dykes and rivers where it stands a good chance of ending up inside a fish, or a bivalve like a mussel or a clam.

All this might not sound very important to you, but in fact microplastic is becoming a big problem in the environment – as anyone who has watched nature documentaries lately must be beginning to realise. We are now being told that since the ingestion of microplastics begins with the very lowest forms of life, which are then eaten by progressively larger animals, the amount of microplastics is being concentrated (along with those toxins) into fish destined for our own tables, and into animals which eat fish, like otters and seals. Some of these toxins affect health, including fertility. There are now whole, doomed, dolphin and orca pods which cannot breed because of the pollution in the seas.

If you are now thinking, ‘Yeah, but the small amount of glitter in my little packet of Magic Reindeer Food won’t make a lot of difference – it’ll be fine!” Well, join the club. Thousands – if not millions – of people across the UK and the US are thinking the same thing.

How much glitter does that add up to? How much wildlife will it kill, do you think? Will the 2016 batch of glitter be in your next tin of sardines?

There is, however, an alternative. Online, you can find many wildlife-friendly recipes for Magic Reindeer Food which contain the oats, but also quality bird seed, dried fruit, nibbed nuts, etc. There are even recipes for harmless, gelatine-based ‘glitter’ to which you can add natural colours like beetroot or spirulina powder. A little chilli powder in the mix will deter rodents – they don’t like chilli whereas birds don’t care, and the important thing is, it won’t harm them.

1 To be fair, there are Magic Reindeer Foods out there which do not contain glitter. I can’t say whether these are safe or not, because it depends what’s in them, but clearly they are going to be better than glitter.

2 From Wikipedia:

“Furthermore, plastic particles may highly concentrate and transport synthetic organic compounds (e.g. persistent organic pollutants, POPs), commonly present in the environment and ambient sea water, on their surface through adsorption. It still remains unknown if microplastics can act as agents for the transfer of POPs from the environment to organisms in this way, but evidence suggest this to be a potential portal for entering food webs. Of further concern, additives added to plastics during manufacture may leach out upon ingestion, potentially causing serious harm to the organism. Endocrine disruption by plastic additives may affect the reproductive health of humans and wildlife alike.”