What Goes Up Must Come Down -
The Problem With Balloons
By Wendy Priesnitz
Birthdays, births, graduations, promotions,
anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, retirements, sporting events…. Balloons are
used to decorate and celebrate many life events. Sometimes, they’re tied to
a weight or bouquet of flowers and remain indoors until they slowly deflate
as the celebration ends. Other times, they’re carried proudly by little
children on a summer day, only to waft away to the accompaniment of tears.
And sometimes, large numbers – often thousands – of them are actively
released outdoors in special shows of lofty exuberance.
But what goes up must come down. And in the case of
balloons, that results in plastic litter that is potentially deadly. Once
released into the air during celebrations, balloons and their fragments make
their ways into rivers, lakes, and oceans, hurting or killing marine mammals
in the process. Not just marine mammals are at risk; fish, birds, and land
animals (both wild and domestic) also mistake them for food and/or get
tangled in their strings. The victim is usually killed as a result of the
balloon blocking its digestive tract, leaving it unable to take in any more
nutrients and slowly starving it to death.
A 2016 study conducted for the international group
Ocean Conservancy and published in the journal Marine Policy, ranked
balloons as one of the top three deadliest forms of litter, only behind
discarded fishing nets and plastic bags.
Seabirds are particularly vulnerable. The research
found that balloons are the highest-risk plastic debris item for seabirds.
Marine birds are 32 times as likely to die from eating a little fragment of
a popped balloon than they are from a hard plastic like a LEGO brick or
straw. Even though balloons represent only two percent of all plastics
ingested by seabirds, they are responsible for 42 percent of plastic-related
The problem is huge and occurs worldwide. Balloons with
notes that were released by school children in the UK were found as far away
as Australia. According to the U.S. environmental non-profit group Alliance
for the Great Lakes, volunteer shoreline cleanups found more than 18,000
balloons and balloon pieces on Great Lakes beaches alone between 2016 and
2018. In 2019 the International Coastal Cleanup, an annual event organized
by the Ocean Conservancy, recorded over 100,000 balloons found around the
world, with almost half in the U.S.
A few U.S. states have laws regulating the intentional
release of balloons, with others considering such laws, and a number of
countries around the world have done the same. Some cities also have
ordinances against intentional balloon releases.
Not surprisingly, the balloon industry dislikes talk
about banning balloons. The Balloon Council, a Trenton, New Jersey-based
organization of balloon retailers, distributors, and manufacturers, spends
millions of dollars lobbying to change or stop proposed laws to restrict
The industry markets latex balloons as biodegradable,
with the insinuation that they’re eco-friendly. However, latex balloons are
the kind found most often in the stomachs of dead animals.
In response to industry greenwashing and the popularity
of balloon releases, two 20-something American sisters formed a non-profit
organization called Balloons Blow. Their
website and social media accounts provide a wealth of information about
Balloons Blow also notes that balloons are also a waste
of helium, which is a finite resource and can be put to other, more
important uses in the fields of science and medicine. In addition, mylar
balloons entangled in electrical transmission equipment can cause power
Fortunately, alternatives are as available as one’s
imagination. Consider garden spinners and pinwheels; flags, banners, ribbon
dancers, origami garlands, and kites; tissue paper pompoms that can be
thrown into the compost when you’re done; solar-powered lamps and
battery-operated strings of colored lights; flowers; blowing bubbles; or floating
flowers down a calm stream (to replace balloon releases sometimes used at
Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's editor. She has been a journalist
for over forty years and is the author of thirteen books.