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Balloons have always been synonymous with joy, party, and celebration, as they are one of the essential decorative elements in this type of events. However, behind this colorful and exciting item lies a negative side that many people tend to neglect.
Generally, we see balloon releases as a visual spectacle. But what if I told you that this is an attack on nature? Would it be surprising to find out that most of them, – even if they are marketed as biodegradable balloons – are not eco-friendly? During parties and funfairs, these helium-filled balloons are released into the air, drift far away from us, deflate, and can go on to wreak havoc on our ecosystem.
Where do balloons go?
A balloon release can be a very romantic activity for a wedding, birthday party, or public occasion. But where do they end up? That is the question we must ask ourselves.
The balloons end up on land or reach the sea with harmful consequences. This poses a threat to fauna, flora in both water and land, as their material compositions are not eco-friendly. Marine animals, in particular, are the most susceptible to suffocation and death from balloons.
When there are fairs, children’s events, or electoral campaigns, it is typical to see many balloons float over the sea in the following days.
Balloons are objects that can be transported for several kilometers and take advantage of air currents to end up out at sea due to their lightness and low weight. Once they deflate or explode, they adhere to the surface of the water and remain floating for several days, aimlessly or at the whim of the currents.
Unfortunately, due to the appearance of these balloons as they float on the sea, marine wildlife such as turtles can mistake them for jellyfish and consume them.
Forest and Bird marine advocate, Anton van Helden, cited an interesting case where a large balloon release happened at Disneyland in New Zealand. Later on, the remnants of the balloons were found in the stomachs of stranded Dolphins. A similar occurrence has also been recorded in Florida by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation. An autopsy on a stranded baby dolphin revealed a heap of plastic and pieces of balloons in its stomach. [https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.tampabay.com/florida/2019/04/28/stranded-dolphin-in-florida-had-plastic-bags-balloon-in-stomach/%3foutputType=amp]
If you think this problem only exists on water, think again. Research by environmental groups has shown that balloons can pose a threat to terrestrial wildlife. Photos have emerged of animals like the bighorn sheep, cattle eaglet, etc., consuming balloons, leading to their demise. Balloons have been known to damage or block the digestive tract of animals, preventing them from eating as they succumb to a slow and painful death.[https://balloonsblow.org/impacts-on-wildlife-and-environment/]
The residue of balloons and their ribbons can also entangle animals, preventing them from moving and leading to starvation.
Most balloons explode, breaking into small fragments, which a lot of manufacturers claim aren’t harmful. But in reality, those bits can still be consumed by small birds and further put the fauna at risk.
What are balloons made of?
Modern-day balloons are manufactured with rubber, latex, neoprene, metalized plastic, or nylon fabric.
Party balloons typically come in two materials: latex, a flexible liquid rubber substance, and aluminum foil, made from a nylon foil coated with plastic and metal materials. Most balloons made from aluminum foil are similar, but their exact chemical components can vary.
Mylar or aluminum foil balloons
Mylar balloons are made up of nylon foil coated with polyethylene and metallic materials that have been heat-sealed together. The resulting sheet is lightweight and non-porous (i.e., airtight). Because the material does not expand or stretch when inflated, printers can easily print images on their flat surface.
The foil balloons have a very easy-to-use seal. Additionally, the aluminum foil material makes them completely non-porous, making them capable of holding helium, and if the gaskets are properly tightened, they can float for a week or two. Also, those who want an even longer life for their balloon can upgrade or refill the helium. When a foil balloon pops, it won’t shatter, nor does it present choking hazards. However, they are not environmentally friendly as these balloons are not biodegradable.
Over the past few years, several environmental organizations have pushed for adopting eco-friendly, biodegradable balloons. This has given rise to latex balloons, and with more people opting for eco-friendly alternatives, the balloon industry has tilted towards the use of natural latex as a significant raw material.
Latex is a liquid rubber obtained from the sap of rubber trees found in Africa and some parts of Asia. Chemists process the sap with a mixture or with water, oil, color, and various chemicals to make it suitable for thousands of uses, including medical supplies (gloves, bandages, and equipment), toys, adhesives, pacifiers, and also, balloons. Most latex balloons are solid in color.
Latex balloons are colorful, inexpensive, and offer the flexibility to be inflated with helium, air, or even liquid, like water. The nature of latex makes them resistant to breakage, although if they are inflated too much or punctured with a sharp object, they will explode.
Biodegradable Latex Balloons
You might have heard the word “Biodegradable” a few times, but what does this really mean?
We say that a material, object, or product is biodegradable when it can decompose into the chemical elements that make it up due to the action of biological agents and different types of environmental conditions. That is, when we talk about biodegradability, we refer to the decomposition capacity of something.
Although most materials can degrade if given enough time when we talk about biodegradable materials, we usually refer to those with a high biodegradability capacity in a relatively short period of time.
Are they really biodegradable?
The main advantage of biodegradable materials is that, after degradation, there are no harmful residues. It is a choice that significantly benefits the environment, so it must be considered. Materials of this type degrade, returning to the environment in the form of the elements that initially composed them, no microplastics or other non-natural elements are left behind.
Among all the industrial materials, latex has proven to be the ultimate element for manufacturing biodegradable balloons. Simply put, a biodegradable balloon is on which is made from 100% natural latex.
As stated earlier, latex is an organic material that comes from rubber trees found mainly in African countries like Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and parts of Asia. It is obtained through a slow dripping process on the bark that allows the sap to be obtained without damaging the tree. These eco friendly balloons are then made by mixing this sap with a natural pigment and a coagulant.
How long does it take to decompose?
Biodegradable latex balloons take at least six months to decompose fully. An hour after inflating the balloons, they begin to oxidize, and then they break. For this option to be truly sustainable, it is best to tie them by hand, without using paper, tape, or plastic labels. It is also important to make sure that its composition is 100% natural latex since many other balloons are made with latex resin mixed with non-ecological materials.
Compared to traditional balloons, those made with the sap of the rubber tree could be a somewhat more environmentally friendly option, but it is important not to abuse them. It is pertinent to note that although latex balloons are biodegradable, they can also negatively impact nature if they are not used cautiously.
Are biodegradable balloons really the solution?
Yes, we all agree that latex balloons are biodegradable, but are they the solution to the problem? According to its manufacturers, a latex balloon lasts as long as an oak leaf: between 80 – 100 days. What they don’t tend to say in debates is that this is an optimistic view, and in truth, the biodegradation of natural latex is a slow process [https://aem.asm.org/content/71/6/2803]. When latex balloons fall into water, the estimated decomposition time is six months. The ribbons and ornaments that can be associated with latex balloons can also be harmful to the environment.
There is little fuss about the potential hazards a latex balloon can cause. This is understandable because, for a long time, we have been battling plastic substances that can remain in the environment for generations without degrading. When dealing with a material that could stay in the environment for 500 years, anything with a 6-month decomposition time will undoubtedly feel like a great eco-friendly alternative.
But the truth is that six months is more than enough for latex balloons to end up in the stomachs of diverse wildlife.
Tackling the balloon release tradition
Balloon releases might be a colorful and spectacular sight to behold at weddings, parties, graduations, etc., but as stated earlier, all that glitters is not gold. Behind the joy and fun that this activity brings lies the potential to cause severe harm to wildlife and the natural environment.
Metallic and nylon balloons, in particular, are not biodegradable, allowing them to pollute the environment for hundreds of years. Even latex balloons that have been adopted by the balloon industry as an environmentally friendly option can still cause their fair share of damage when released into the atmosphere.
Helium balloons can soar as high as 9000 meters and can travel over a thousand miles. This means that it is possible for a helium balloon released in St Louis to reach the Atlantic ocean before descending to form latex marine litter. [https://www.post-journal.com/life/nature/2018/09/helium-filled-balloons-are-disastrous-for-the-environment/]
The debris from what would seem to be a harmless balloon release can end up causing death to wildlife through entanglement and ingestion. A study conducted by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute revealed that almost 5% of dead sea turtles had ingested latex balloons.
The obsession with balloon releases has led to the birth of an organization in the United States, Balloons Blow, which is dedicated to educating society about the “destructive effects” that even a single balloon release can have on animals and the environment.
Balloons Blow has spent years striving to inspire and promote a lifestyle that eradicates this tradition. According to them, balloons can travel thousands of miles and pollute the most remote places. They return to the earth as garbage, kill countless animals, and cause very dangerous blackouts that can lead to fires.
They have been able to find birds at beaches that died after becoming entangled with balloon debris or with remainders in their stomach. This organization has also been able to verify its ravages on wildlife on land where animals eat balloon remnants, only to have their digestive tract blocked. From that moment on, they are unable to eat more food and starve to death. Also, dolphins, whales, turtles, and many other marine species have died for the same reason.
Cleanups alone can’t solve this environmental hazard. This is why governments in different parts of the world have taken a strong stance against balloon releases, especially in the US, where states like California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, New York, Texas, and Virginia have prohibited the release of balloons for leisure activities.
We must adhere strictly to these rules, and in areas where balloon releases are still legal, we must take it upon ourselves to adopt the “Don’t Let Go” policy. Rather than release balloons into the atmosphere, it is better to use them indoors and dispose of them adequately after use. In cases of foil balloons, deflate them with a drinking straw, fold and reuse where possible. You can also cut the balloons and ribbons into tiny pieces and dispose of them in your waste bin.
There’s no denying that balloons are a bright visual spectacle for any event, but the cost that comes with it is too high for our environment. Therefore we need to consider eco-friendly alternatives that can still make our celebrations memorable and exciting.
Chinese lanterns, also called sky lanterns, have been in use for centuries not just as a source of light but also as symbols of vitality, social status, and good luck. Today, they are used worldwide to achieve fascinating scenery on different types of occasions.
The best types of Chinese lanterns are made with fire resistant and biodegradable materials that make them safe for humans and the environment.
As great as they are, it is essential to note that waste from biodegradable lanterns also takes some time to decompose, and their wireframes have been known to strangle animals. So make sure that the frame is made of bamboo or some environment friendly material. They can also be responsible for wildfires if they enter the wrong place, so never use them in strong wind or during drought. Check local laws as it may be prohibited.
Paper Pinwheels are a great alternative to balloons for a festive decoration. They can be fixed to the lawn around your intended location, where their beautiful bright colors can put your event in the spotlight. You can also use them to decorate your wedding, party, etc., for a more colorful occasion.
The problem with using pinwheels is that they cannot spin in moderate winds and can be tedious to assemble.
Bubbles never cease to bring fun and joy wherever they appear. Rather than balloons, you can make use of a bubble blower/machine with a non-toxic bubble solution to spice up your event.
Unfortunately, when bubbles are involved, there’s never enough to last the entire event. Also, bubble solutions that contain light corn syrup or honey can attract wasps and bees to your occasion.
As great as biodegradable balloons are, it is evident that they can also contribute in their little way to the destruction of our ecosystem. They present a significant threat to wildlife during the time they degrade, which is why we cannot let them fly away.
Though they are made from natural latex, manufacturers have no option other than introducing additional chemicals, synthetic polymers, or plasticizers to give the balloon its flexibility and durability.
For this reason, everyone must be responsible when making use of balloons. They are best used indoors, must be disposed of properly, and should never be released into the air. You can also consider using eco friendly alternatives like tissue paper pom’s and bubbles, among others. We all have a part to play, and we must make efforts to protect the ecosystem the best way we can.
Below are a few Questions & Answers on biodegradable balloons:
Q: Do latex balloons biodegrade?
A: Yes, but slowly. It could take between 6 months to 4 years to decompose. In this period they present significant threat to wildlife.
Q: Are biodegradable balloons safe for the environment?
A: Unfortunately, not as before they degrade they can be eaten by animals and kill them.
Q: What are the risks of biodegradable balloons?
A: Animals can consume them and die. Also the string of the balloon can suffocate animals.
Q: Are water balloons biodegradable?
A: They are primarily made with latex, which can take years to decompose, so it is the same as with helium or air balloons.
Q: How to dispose of biodegradable balloons?
A: The most important is not to release them as they may end up in the stomach of an animal. You can treat it as regular waste and it will decompose in a landfill.