Colorful, fun, and whimsical — these are what make balloons the poster child of celebrations. And with biodegradable balloons now available, more people are inclined to buy and use them for every event, big or small.
Balloon releases have been increasingly popular too. After all, it’s so magical to see colorful balloons soar into the sky. But did you ever stop and think of what happens to balloons after you release them? Is a few minutes or hours of fun worth contributing to planet pollution?
Yes, things turned dark real quick. This article will shed a lot of light on the after party that balloons have. So think twice before you let another balloon into the sky!
The Truth and Consequences of Biodegradable Balloons
With the growing movement of going green, more and more “biodegradable” versions of common things have become available. This includes biodegradable balloons. But how much do we really know about the most popular celebratory decoration?
What makes balloons biodegradable?
Latex balloons are often marketed as biodegradable because latex is a natural product. Natural rubber latex is harvested from the rubber tree (Hevea brasisiensis). When the trunk is cut, milky liquid latex pours out, and this is the natural latex used to make biodegradable rubber.
The story is different for commercially produced latex balloons. Although latex itself is biodegradable, the manufacturing process adds many other chemicals and compounds that slows down the degradation process. (1)
“To create high-quality, long-lasting balloons, latex needs to be vulcanized with sulfur and compounds such as heavy metals, waxes, antioxidants, plasticizers, flame retardants and pigments are added to it.”
Aside from these non-biodegradable and toxic additives, some latex forms are completely synthetic. This means that they may not be biodegradable at all! Synthetic latex is made of neoprene, which is a petroleum derivative. It’s the same material used to make wetsuits and gasoline hoses. This synthetic material does not decompose, but it does break down into smaller pieces over time, contributing to the growing microplastic pollution.
How long does it take for latex balloons to break down?
Now we know that not all latex balloons are created equal. But how much difference does composition play in the degradation process?
Natural Latex First
The biodegradability of natural latex is made possible because it is a straight chain polymer. Unlike compounds with complicated chemical structures, straight chain polymers are simple and have a weak double bond (2).
“That natural rubber is susceptible to degradation through a number of different mechanisms is well known. Among these are degradation by exposure to ultraviolet radiation (sunlight), exposure to ozone and oxygen, exposure to weather, natural aging and bacteriological degradation. “
Inflating a natural latex balloon makes it even more susceptible to degradation by the ozone and oxidation. So when it does pop, the smaller pieces will then decompose naturally.
To summarize, a natural latex balloon with no chemical additives should break down around the same time it will take a rubber tree to decompose naturally. Plus, these natural latex balloons decompose faster in smaller pieces, as when they pop.
What about treated latex balloons?
Now let’s talk about the latex balloons laced with chemical additives. As mentioned earlier, these balloons are designed to last way longer than their natural latex counterparts. But how much longer do these balloons last and do they even decompose at all?
In the spirit of spreading the truth about these synthetic latex balloons, this is one of the few instances where we are happy to burst your bubble.
Latex balloons with chemical additives are NOT biodegradable.
There are multiple studies that have tested how fast these types of balloons decompose. Researchers observed “biodegradable” latex balloons in fresh water, sea water and on land over several weeks. One thing was clear among all studies: There was no significant decomposition of the latex balloons with chemical additives (3).
“For biodegradability to be meaningful the balloons would need to degrade relatively quickly and consistently so they were no longer a risk to wildlife or the environment. Our results showed no such outcome, and even industrial compost methods did not facilitate degradation during our experiment.”
There you have it folks, the truth about biodegradable balloons, revealed. However, this ugly truth is only the beginning. As you continue reading this article, the latex balloons being referred to will be the kind mixed with chemical additives because these are the ones widely available and wrongly marketed as “biodegradable”.
What effect do these “biodegradable” balloons have on the planet?
Well, now we know that even the marketed “biodegradable” balloons are not what they say they are. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop here. Let’s look into what the consequences are for releasing these in the sky.
What happens to latex balloons after you release them?
Balloon releases seem like a good idea in the moment of celebration or in memory of someone. It may be comforting to think that releasing balloons during a funeral is a way of sending your love to your dearly departed. The thought is nice, but the reality is that you are releasing something that will have a detrimental effect on the planet for years to come.
Did you ever stop and think of what happens to balloons after you release them in the sky? No, they don’t dissolve in the atmosphere, never to be seen again. Some of these balloons don’t even get that high up in the sky.
Released balloons can travel thousands of miles before hitting the ground or ocean — that is if they don’t pop into a billion pieces first. Either way, they litter the planet with the toxic chemicals in them.
Those balloons that find their way back on solid ground don’t pose an immediate threat to the planet. But remember that the planet is mostly covered by water, so chances are higher that these balloons will find their way into the oceans. This is where things get dangerous.
Also, for a better understanding of the situation, you can watch this short news report:
Latex balloons in the water
We’ve all heard about plastics being one of the biggest enemies of the planet. But new studies show that latex balloons have surpassed plastic in terms of being a danger to marine and birdlife (4).
Latex balloons are the deadliest form of marine debris for seabirds. They are 32 times more likely to kill than hard plastics when ingested.
The balloons themselves are not the only problem. Remember, they were attached to a string. That string can easily entangle sea turtles, and other sea creatures that get caught in them. Balloon strings have also jumped up the dangerous marine debris list, now trailing behind discarded fishing gear and plastic bags.
What can we do to lessen the effects of littered latex balloons?
Aside from the obvious solution which is to stop buying/using latex balloons, here are other ways you can save the planet.
Use safer alternatives on your special occasions
Balloons have been a symbol of celebration for the longest time. But now that we know the detrimental effects they have on the environment, it’s time to look into other celebratory decorations.
Are Sky Lanterns A Better Option?
Aside from being colorful, one of the things that make balloons so festive is that they float in the air. We get it, it’s a magical sight. That said, you may think that the next best option would be sky lanterns. After all, they are just made of paper and sticks. Those are undoubtedly biodegradable, right?
Yes, sky lanterns are completely biodegradable — from the paper shell to the wooden frame and even the wax. BUT, sky lanterns are a hazard in that these beautiful glowing things have fire.
Again, let’s think past the magical aspect and think about what happens after these fire hazards are released into the sky.
Sky lanterns are basically eco-friendly, mini versions of hot air balloons. The flame is prevented from blowing out by the paper case. But unlike a hot air balloon, you can’t control where these fire-containing structures land.
There have been reports of lanterns causing fires (5). Floating lanterns caused a zoo fire in Germany, killing over 30 animals. Another residential fire involving floating lanterns destroyed 4 homes and resulted in 15 injuries. A single floating lantern has also caused flight delays in several countries as a precaution because if the lantern gets caught in a plane engine, the entire aircraft can crash.
To make the long story short: No, sky lanterns are NOT a good alternative to latex balloons.
The fool proof options
You may think that balloons are hard to beat in terms of adding a festive vibe to a celebration. But knowing their long term effects, so many other decorations can easily beat balloons in terms of preventing environmental havoc. Here are truly better options for latex balloons, ones that will cause no harm whatsoever to the planet.
- Kites. If you want something colorful that floats in the air, kites are your best option. Kids especially, will have fun running to get them up in the air. Plus, you can control these airborne structures and use them for another special day (or any day really).
- Origami. The Japanese art of paper folding adds a whimsical touch to any event. These intricate works of art may take practice to master, but it’s a fun experience for everyone. Plus, you can give them away as tokens after the celebration. Who doesn’t love a two for one deal?
- Painted Stones. This is another eco-friendly way of adding color to an event. Painted stones can be an activity during the event, or they can be made in advance and placed on a table as a form of installation art. Guests can take home one as a souvenir too, just like the origami. Just make sure that you seal the paint with a clear coating of enamel or use a water-based, non-toxic paint.
- Bubbles. Who doesn’t like bubbles? These are definitely a great way to liven up a celebration. You get the whimsical feel of tiny balloons, without having to worry about any negative effects to the environment. Plus, these little floaters cast mini rainbows when the sunlight hits them just right — talk about a magical touch!
- Reusable Luminaries. For night time events, reusable luminaries are the perfect wow-factor decoration. Put rechargeable LED string lights in mason jars and voila, you have a magical centerpiece for your tables. You can also line them up to illuminate pathways.
As you can see, you don’t need balloons to make a party feel festive. Plus, wouldn’t you feel much better and be in a more celebratory mood knowing that you played your part in saving the planet?
Ban Balloon Releases
This may be something that you can’t do on your own, unless you have a seat in your local government. However, you can do your part by spreading the word about the highly dangerous effects these events have on our environment.
With enough community support, environmental organizations have a voice. And the louder the voice, the more governments are inclined to listen.
Several states in the USA and many other countries have passed laws prohibiting balloon releases. Some, like the state of Massachusetts, have even gone so far as to ban the sale and use of balloons altogether.
This balloon ban has been a growing movement, with each of the 6 habitable continents having at least one country that prohibits the use/release of balloons (6).
Biodegradable balloons are not nearly as biodegradable as they are advertised to be. This misrepresentation has led to devastating effects to our environment, specifically to marine wildlife.
It’s time to burst the bubble of the balloon party and opt for safer, yet fun alternatives. A few minutes/hours of balloon fun is most definitely not worth over generations of pollution and marine wildlife death.
- New Study Finds Latex Balloons Are Not Biodegradable. Retrieved from: https://www.imas.utas.edu.au/news/news-items/new-study-finds-latex-balloons-are-not-biodegradable
- A Study Of The Effect Of Balloon Releases On The Environment. Retrieved from: http://seaturtle.org/library/BurchetteDK_2000_Astudyoftheeffectofballoonreleaseso.pdf
- Latex Balloons Do Not Degrade Uniformly In Freshwater, Marine And Composting Environments. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304389420316150?via%3Dihub
- Balloon Releases Have Deadly Consequences – We’re Helping Citizen Scientists Map Them. Retrieved from: https://publicengagement.umich.edu/balloon-releases-have-deadly-consequences-were-helping-citizen-scientists-map-them/
- 8 Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Balloon Releases and Sky Lanterns. Retrieved from: https://blog.padi.com/eco-friendly-alternatives-to-balloon-releases-and-sky-lanterns/
- Isle of Man bans sky lanterns and helium balloons. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-58171438
Tana grew up around island farms and pine forests. Her love for nature lead to her degree in Biology and mission to lessen her environmental impact. Now she grows food in her backyard and shares what she learns from Eco Peanut with others.