I recently passed the local elementary school which was celebrating the return of the students to the campus. That’s a very exciting thing for these students who have had to learn under more than difficult circumstances these past 18 months. The campus was festive-looking with at least 50 mylar balloons and as many, if not more, latex balloons. As much as I enjoy a good party with lots of decorations, balloons cause me angst. While many people are trying to reduce their use of single-use plastic bags, bottles, utensils and straws, balloons are often overlooked.
One of the things I love to do is take Island Packers out of Ventura on the pelagic trips they run several times a year. In the main cabin is a mesh bag full of the mylar balloons they have picked up while out looking for birds or whale watching; I have been on trips where the captain pulled in a dozen colorful balloons. At least they were retrieved before they could become attractive “food” for the local sea life. There are hundreds of photos of albatross, seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, porpoises and other sea life that have starved to death because their gut was full of this undigestible garbage. Mylar balloons have been seen thousands of feet up in the atmosphere with most coming to rest in the oceans, forgotten by the people that had released them in a feel-good celebratory moment. There is nothing to celebrate about the destructive effect these balloons have on the environment.
Latex balloons are just as bad if not worse. To quote an article on balloon debris, “Unlike Mylar balloons, latex balloons burst in the atmosphere, shredding into small pieces that, when floating on the surface of water, resemble jellyfish or squid. Plastic debris in the ocean can also become coated with algae and other marine microbes that produce a chemical scent, which sea turtles, seabirds, fish and other marine life associate with food. Because they are soft and malleable, latex balloons easily conform to an animal’s stomach cavity or digestive tract and can cause obstruction, starvation and death.
As a result, latex balloons are the deadliest form of marine debris for seabirds. They are 32 times more likely to kill then hard plastics when ingested. Balloons tied with ribbons and strings also rank just behind discarded fishing gear and plastic bags and utensils due to the high risk of entanglement and death that they pose to marine life.”
Contrary to what balloon makers would like us to think, balloons are not biodegradable. If they were made from 100% natural latex they would be, but latex balloons that we buy at the local party store are made from latex processed with dyes, plasticizers and other chemicals making them non biodegradable.
There are alternatives to the release of balloons. Dozens of websites pop up in response to a Google search “Environmentally friendly alternatives to balloons”. I urge you to check them out.
For more info see:
- Odors from marine plastic debris elicit foraging behavior in sea turtles: Current Biology (cell.com)
- Marine plastic debris emits a keystone infochemical for olfactory foraging seabirds (science.org)
- Odours from marine plastic debris induce food search behaviours in a forage fish | Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (royalsocietypublishing.org)
- Rubber Jellyfish – proudly supported by the Documentary Australia Foundation (rubberjellyfishmovie.com)