Commentary: Bypass the balloon when celebrating

Let it be known that I am not here to ruin your celebration or your fun. I am, however, hoping to convince you that there are better alternatives than balloons for celebrating something. You were first asked to skip the straw, now you’re being asked to bypass the balloon.

Balloons are not new. The first rubber balloon was created by Michael Faraday in 1824 for science experiments at the Royal Institution of London. Prior to rubber, the literature cites balloons made of pig bladders, cat intestines and whale intestines (see “Swiss Family Robinson” in 1812, and “Moby Dick” in 1851). These early balloons were used mostly for entertainment, as they are today, but there is also evidence that Galileo (1564-1642) used an inflated pig bladder in experiments to measure the weight of air. While we would not dream of using these materials as balloons today, they would actually be better for the environment. So let’s fast forward to more recent times, when, instead of animal gut, we started using less biodegradable materials for balloons.

We would like to think that things we use every day decompose quickly, and most natural products do, fairly quickly, given the right conditions. Unfortunately, many manmade products take decades to centuries to decompose, and the best available data indicate that some types of plastic may never fully break down and “go away.” We’ll save microplastics for another time.

So how long does it take for balloons to decompose? As you can probably guess, it depends on the material from which they are made. If latex balloons did not have additives, like plasticizers, they might break down in just a few months to years, as latex is a natural material. However, once additives are mixed in, decomposition time increases substantially — to years or decades. Mylar balloons, invented in the 1970s of a synthetic nylon with a metallic coating, are even worse. In the 40-plus years Mylar has been around, it shows no signs of breaking down.

In the time between a balloon bringing joy and its decomposition (if that even happens), balloons can cause a whole host of problems for people and animals on land, in the water, and in the air. Even if not used for a mass celebratory release, balloons often make it into the air accidentally when their ribbons slip from children’s hands or untie from a car dealership or yard sale.

Once in the air, balloons are at the mercy of the wind. Wind speed increases the higher you go in the atmosphere.

Therefore, the higher in the atmosphere a balloon rises, the further it will travel from where it was released. Often, this means released balloons end up in the ocean, where they can wreak havoc when animals such as sea turtles, marine mammals, and fishes either get tangled in the balloon’s string or confuse the balloon for food because of its similar underwater appearance to favorite prey like jellyfish. In the stomach, a balloon can give the feeling of being full, but it has no nutritional value. This can lead to severe sickness or death. You’ve probably seen graphic pictures or video of this online or on television.

If balloons do not make it to the ocean, but instead get deposited on land, they can cause similar problems as they do in the ocean. They can also get tangled in power lines causing blackouts, stop trains from running, and are a blight on the landscape.

More and more cities — including Ocean City, Maryland — and states like California, Connecticut, Florida, New York, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia are banning mass releases. While Delaware does not have a specific ban, balloon releases are illegal according to the state’s litter laws. Sky lantern releases are banned by Delaware state law because they are a fire hazard; they’re also litter.

As I mentioned, I am not here to take away all your fun or celebration. There are ways to celebrate lost loved ones, weddings, home football games, etc. without balloons and sky lanterns. The website offers a wealth of alternatives, including planting native trees and pollinator gardens, blowing bubbles, fundraising for a good cause, or deploying seed bombs — specially made clumps of soil and native plant seeds that can be thrown in celebration and grow to benefit the environment where they land.

As we celebrate Earth Day, I encourage you to learn more about unintended consequences and to think about whether the products that we use every day (and their containers, wrapping, etc.) ever really “go away” when we put them in the trash can, throw them out the window, or drop them by accident.

Christopher Petrone is the director of the Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service, which is housed within the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. Delaware Sea Grant serves its stakeholders using applied science to address environmental issues.

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