Although the sight of hundreds of balloons being released into the air often creates a poignant moment, this fleeting point in time can often lead to a disastrous result on marine life.
Many are aware that plastic bags are bad for the environment. However, few are aware that balloons are equally harmful. Maybe this is because the people who manufacture and sell balloons are quick to defend the practice of releasing them. Balloon manufacturers argue that latex balloons are biodegradable. This statement is not entirely false. What the consumer is not told, though, is that a latex balloon can take up to six months to disintegrate. In salt water they decompose much more slowly, maintaining their elasticity for 12 months or more. What one must keep in mind is whilst the balloon is degrading, especially in the sea, animals can easily mistake the floating balloon for food, and digest it.
Once balloons are released into the sky they do not just simply disappear. Remember, what goes up, must come down. In 2006, the Marine Conservation Society estimated that 90-95 percent of released balloons rise to an altitude of 5 miles, where they burst into small fragments. The remaining 5-10 percent do not reach this 5-mile altitude and descend back to land or sea semi-inflated. When balloons are released, they can easily become a serious form of marine pollution. Many marine animals such as whales, turtles, fish, dolphins and seabirds mistake balloons for their natural prey. It is extremely difficult to ascertain whether or not the ingestion of a balloon is the direct cause of death to an animal. However, when a balloon is identified to have been found in the stomach of an animal, it indicates that the balloon has not been broken down by an animal’s digestive system and/or that death occurred shortly after ingestion of the balloon.
While many balloons are made of biodegradable latex, some are made of Mylar foil that remains much longer in the marine environment. Some may remember the story of Inky. On Thanksgiving night in 1993, a 6-foot pygmy sperm whale was stranded on the New Jersey coast. The U.S. Coast Guard flew the whale to an aquarium, where veterinarians found that the main contributors to the animal’s deteriorating health were some large pieces of plastic lodged in her stomach. One of these pieces that blocked the passage of food from her stomach was a Mylar balloon. From January 1978 to September 1997, 446 pygmy sperm whales were reported stranded along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast U.S. Stranding Network. Despite the high numbers of strandings, Inky became the first successfully treated and released pygmy sperm whale.
It is not only the balloons that negatively impact the marine life. It is their equally bad accouterments, ribbon or string, as well. These attachments are an issue because when the balloons descend into the ocean, the ribbons fall as well. Ribbons or string can lead to serious marine life entanglement.
But according to the Balloon Council, balloon releases create an unjustified concern. The balloon council states that, “Only latex balloons are used by professionals in mass releases. Industry guidelines require these balloons to be self-tied and have no attached strings or ribbons — each released balloon is 100 percent biodegradable.”
The council is smart in the aspect that they never specify what “mass” is. For example, in 2010 hundreds met on a field to remember a young girl who passed away. The group then released about 1,500 pink and purple balloons. Although the ceremony was a thoughtful idea, a “professional” did not regulate the balloon release. Therefore the ramifications of this release may have negatively impacted marine life. The Balloon Council also states “research shows that regardless of the latex balloon’s ultimate form when it lands, it will decompose, forming a natural soil nutrient at the same rate as that of an oak leaf.” Again, what the Balloon Council declines to tell the consumer is that an oak leaf is natural and can break down, but it breaks down very slowly and can take up to years to decompose.
Although there are some laws restricting certain types of balloons in California, there are no laws that address the negative impacts on marine life. Some places have laws that directly address the issue. For example, in Florida it is unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to intentionally release, organize the release or intentionally cause to be released within a 24-hour period 10 or more balloons inflated with a gas lighter than air… .” These types of laws discourage residents from participating in events with balloons. Further the law states that if one does release more than 10 balloons in a 24-hour period, they are breaking the law.
There are many solutions to this problem. The simplest, and most obvious, is to avoid buying balloons at all.
In place of balloon releases one can plant a tree to represent the circle of life as well as directly help the environment by trapping CO2, reduce ozone levels, reduce urban runoff and provide oxygen. One may also release balloons inside a house, church, ballroom or some other environment in which the balloons can be easily retrieved and disposed of properly. Visiting a website such as www.healthebay.org provides a source for finding beach clean-ups. By participating in a beach clean-up, one can aid in removing pollution, such as balloons, from beaches. The most powerful and most immediate form to improve the issue is to spread the word. By spreading the word, an individual can alleviate the cause and therefore abate the effect.
Bella Gadsby is a junior at Santa Monica High School.