I have a confession to make. I didn’t think that balloons were that bad for the environment, and I held this belief for a long time. And I was very wrong.
Sure, I knew that foil balloons and the like were obviously pretty awful from an environmental standpoint. The aluminum in them can act as a toxic agent for various fish and invertebrates, not to mention the fact aluminum lasts for decades on end. When materials don’t biodegrade, then you can count on some unlucky animal consuming them.
But I held latex balloons in higher regard. After all, latex is a biodegradable material. I assumed it would be fine. I even wrote a list of the top 10 best biodegradable balloons (all latex). That post is now gone.
I say all of this because owning up to one’s shortcomings and ignorance is how one grows and does better in the future. And with that, I wanted to help promote the truth behind latex balloons and why they are sometimes advertised as “biodegradable”. That’s why this article exists.
Who knows? Maybe someone else will figure it out like I had to do.
Alright, let’s jump right into the nitty gritty!
Why Balloons are a Threat to the Environment
Balloons have a few key issues when it comes to how they impact the environment. The big ones include:
- Killing tons of animals
- Causing power outages
- Wasting helium
- Polluting places far from their origination
Let’s go over each one in a little more detail.
Balloons are Responsible for Killing Many Marine Animals
The widespread impact of pollution on wildlife makes it impossible to get accurate figures, but the Entanglement Network estimated that over 100,000 marine animals died due to ingesting physical pollution. 5% of dead sea turtles had balloon fragments found in their stomachs.
It’s not just the water-based animals that suffer. Birds will often ingest this material, and many have also been found with balloon pieces in their stomachs.
That doesn’t even touch the other problems. Potential chemicals leaking into the water can also have a huge negative effect on the population.
Balloons Can Cause Power Outages – Yes, I’m Serious
Let me clarify that this is mostly due to mylar balloons. That shiny coat and dazzling sparkle aren’t just for show – it’s the result of light reflecting off metal.
When mylar balloons are released into the air, they have a good chance of coming into contact with power lines. And when they do, you can count on sparks flying as the metal conducts the electricity found in the power lines. The result is a power outage that can be a huge pain to fix.
You have to understand that these balloons can short transformers and melt electrical wires. These are not easy fixes. It takes time and money to fix. Meanwhile, nobody in the affected area can access electricity.
And with mylar balloons making a comeback on social media, some places are already starting to feel the pain. California, for example, had 5,000 residents without power thanks to a singly shiny balloon messing everything up.
Balloons are a Big Waste of Helium
You might have heard that the world is experiencing a shortage of helium, a gas that has many important applications. And if you haven’t heard, then let me be the first to tell you. The world REALLY needs more helium.
Here are a few things helium is used for:
- Providing an environment where fiber optics (communication systems, medical equipment, internet, surgery, computer networking, etc.) and semiconductors (military systems, transportation, clean energy, etc.) can be created.
- Detecting leaks in car air-conditioning systems
- Inflating car airbags very quickly
- Treating respiratory ailments
- Acting as MRI magnets
- Shielding in welding
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Helium is pretty critical for many parts of our lives that we take for granted.
Does that sound like a resource that should be spent on balloons of all things? Personally, I think that the other stuff is just a bit more critical. Maybe that’s just me though.
Balloons Will Travel Far and Wide to Spread, Polluting as They Go
You might have guessed that balloons are pretty good at floating. It’s kind of what they do, right? But do you know just how far a balloon can travel?
You might think that balloons don’t actually go that far because they primarily go vertical, not horizontal. But that would be incorrect thought in this case. Balloons can actually travel more than 1,000 miles after they are released into the air. The distance traveled is relative to the amount of helium in the balloon and the strength of the balloon itself – mylar will last longer than latex, for example.
That’s the distance from San Francisco, CA to Denver, CO. A distance of over two states!
There are plenty of natural environments where a traveling balloon can end up, which just contributes to the “killing animals” problem by expanding the range of affected animals. That sucks a lot.
And No, Latex Balloons Aren’t Much Better
Latex balloons are not biodegradable, and they are also not compostable. While they are marginally better for the environment than mylar or vinyl balloons, that’s not saying much.
Natural latex is biodegradable, yes, but the emphasis is on the natural part. Latex balloons are often made from synthetic latex and packed with chemicals that alter the balloons’ properties. This is usually done to make for a better balloon, but the environment suffers for it.
There have been studies done to document the biodegradation of latex balloons, all of which point to the fact that they are not good for the environment. Even in composting conditions, latex balloons would barely change (we are talking 1% difference here) over the course of 16 weeks. 4 months in the best conditions for breaking down organic material, and there was almost no change.
If that doesn’t work, what hope does a natural environment have? What hope does an ocean full of life have when the ocean is great at preserving harmful materials?
And even if the latex does eventually start to break down, the chemicals that had been originally added to it may leak into the water, which can cause a host of health issues for animals and, eventually, people.
Eco-Friendly Alternatives That Are Way, Way Better
So hopefully you’ve realized that there is no way to win with balloons. Even latex balloons, which are often championed as an eco-friendly option, are not any good.
So if balloons are off the table, what else can we use? The party must go on, right?
Don’t worry, we have a few options for you to consider. Here is a list of 10 eco-friendly alternatives to balloons:
- Fabric bunting and banners – great if you still want to hang something.
- Paper chains – a solid choice for parties that call for vibrant colors.
- Paper pinwheels – a bit old school but tons of fun.
- Plants – good for a tropical or enchanted forest vibe.
- Biodegradable confetti – quick and easy option.
- Eco-friendly lighting – candles can provide a warm atmosphere.
- Bubbles – don’t last long but are very fun. Make for great pictures too.
- Paper kites – kids will love them.
- Paper streamers – an alternative to paper chains.
- Lanterns – with a bit of eco-friendly creativity, these can easily enrich any event.
If I had to choose one, I would go with the streamers. They are easy to get, easy to hand up, and easy to dispose of (they can usually be recycled). I’m a fan of making life simpler, especially for something as involved as party planning. But if I wasn’t hosting, then I might go with the biodegradable confetti.
Of course, I would (maybe) help clean it up afterward too.
So if latex balloons aren’t biodegradable, why do some companies advertise them as such?
Well, part of me would just say “it makes for better marketing and thus more money” and chalk it up to that. Another part of me believes that they don’t know any better, whether unintentionally or through willful ignorance.
I think it’s a mixture of both, really. Let’s face it: balloons are extremely popular, and they have been for a long time. They are ingrained in our culture, and it feels very weird to not use them at all. So for people who are trying to live a greener lifestyle, biodegradable balloons seem like an attractive option. I should know, I was one of them.
So it’s no surprise that companies making latex balloons can slap a “biodegradable” label on their latex products and technically not be wrong. But it’s disingenuous and ignores the very real environmental impact.
I also think that some companies prefer to leave their head in the sand. That’s why it’s important to stop supporting these companies. Either make balloons are are truly biodegradable or stop making money.
I don’t know if we can force that decision anytime soon, but we all have to start from somewhere, right? As for me, I’ll stick to eco-friendly balloon alternatives from now on. I hope that some of you will join me.
As always, thank you for reading. Until next time, let’s continue to strive for a greener, better world!