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.


8 thoughts on “Balloons – not so much fun after all

  1. Rob Lenihan 30th April 2018 / 2:35 am

    My goodness, Jay, I had no idea how much damage these balloons are doing.

    I’ve never bought balloons for any occasion and thanks to your post, I’m not going to start!

    • Jay 30th April 2018 / 9:21 am

      I think an awful lot of people – most people – don’t realise, Rob. It’s literally a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Once they disappear into the blue, they might be remembered as a moment of joy for a day or so, but not many people really give a thought to where they might end up.

      Councils here are being called ‘Killjoys’ for banning balloon releases (as they’ve started to do in some places), but if people knew that their particular balloon was going to strangle a newborn lamb or drown a seabird, I don’t think many would let go of that string, do you?

  2. Secret Agent Woman 2nd May 2018 / 2:26 am

    It’s not really a new trend – I’ve worried about it for years. It never made sense to me to release balloons – seemed like an environmentally insane thing to do.

    • Jay 2nd May 2018 / 9:35 am

      Really? It seems to be quite new here in England. Bad enough that they should be used this way for weddings, charity fundraisers etc, but to commemorate a death by causing more death? It’s crazy! Imagine if you presented something to people that way … I wonder how many would think it a good idea? Trouble is, people just don’t think, do they?

  3. Brian Thomann 16th June 2018 / 3:09 pm

    Hi, Jay! My name is Brian Thomann. I came across the post you had written on a blog about 10 years ago about the robot costume you had made for your son. I just wanted you to know it sounds hilarious! Could he walk even short distances? My neighbor’s daughter was a domino once and she HATED it; it was clearly her mom’s idea.

  4. Kate 21st August 2018 / 11:18 pm

    Yes, Yes and Yes. I saw a load of helium balloons on an Ipswich street recently (yes I went to your end of the world) and took a pic, intending writing a blog post about them. Gorgeous, colourful, fun and deadly. I’ll link back to this post if that’s ok with you?

    • Jay 23rd August 2018 / 6:53 am

      Of course, Kate! People should be made aware of the dangers so the more people write about it, the better.

      They are beautiful, that’s part of the problem. People are like magpies, really, we love pretty, shiny things, don’t we? And all too often, we don’t think about the consequences.

      • Kate 23rd August 2018 / 9:13 pm

        Yes, exactly. Thanks!

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