Environmental Fact or Fiction?
Erroneous reports about balloons and balloon releases harming the environment have appeared in major newspapers and on national TV news programs. Many of these reports contain inaccurate claims made by well-intentioned people who care deeply about the earth's ecology - but lack the facts.
Balloons used in special even releases constitute only a small fraction of the industry's sales. Unfortunately, these spurious claims have caused a chilling effect at the local level and unnecessary financial strain on many of America's small, independent balloon retailers who depend on special events as a major source of their livelihoods. Small industries such as delivery and decorating services also suffer.
Most consumers don't have the time or inclination to sort through bad information digested as fact - often resulting in a negative perception that balloons are bad.
Latex balloons are sometimes confused with plastic items and lumped in with the plastics litter problem. The oft-used phrase, "latex balloons and other plastics" is improper. Latex is not a plastic. It's organic, made from the sap of rubber trees collected through an absolutely harmless tapping process very similar to that used for collecting the maple sap used for making syrup.
Moreover, latex balloons are totally biodegradable - the only type of balloon used in a professionally-produced mass release. A latex balloon's molecular structure begins breaking down with inflation and gathers momentum when exposed to sunlight and the atmosphere. Within three hours, most latex balloons released into the atmosphere rise to approximately five miles, begin to oxidize, freeze and shatter into spaghetti-like pieces. Once on the ground gasses and microorganisms attack the latex, continuing the natural decomposition process - even in the dark.
Scientific research, most notably by D.K. Burchette in, "A Study of the Effect of Balloon Releases on the Environment," demonstrates that latex balloons decompose at a rate equal to - or faster than - an oak leaf under similar conditions.
Mylar balloons are foil-like, usually silver and cost significantly more (retailing for $3-$8 each) than latex balloons. Mylar is a synthetic, metallized plastic/nylon material which is recyclable, but not biodegradable. Consequently, mylar balloons are never used in a release.
Helium-filled mylar balloons do get away accidentally because a string breaks or a consumer lets go. These incidents seem to be diminishing as a result of ongoing instore awareness campaigns to encourage anchoring these balloons with decorative weights.
Industry Release Standards
The American balloon industry has set firm standards for mass balloon releases.
Balloons and Sea Animals
Since the mid-1980's, many have raised alarm and hyped rumors that balloons are a constant threat to sea animals, causing a plethora of deaths. Most often this misinformation can be traced to two incidents which occurred along the New Jersey coastline back in the 1980s.
The first incident was in 1985. A 17-foot whale was severly injured after it got stuck within the pilings of a pier and subsequently died. Although the actual cause of death was never scientifically established, the post-mortem revealed a deflated mylar balloon attached to three feet of ribbon in the whale's stomach. Balloon release opponents frequently claim this was the cause of death. Perhaps, but this incident doesn't support the anti-release position because neither mylar balloons or ribbons are used in releases.
No direct cause of death was determined by authorities in the second incident which occurred in 1987 and involved a leatherback turtle. When discovered, the turtle was so decomposed that gender could not be determined. It did have a three-foot long wound caused by a boat propeller - a common cause of sea animal injury and mortality - and the neck of a latex balloon attached to three feet of ribbon also was found in the intestines. This latex balloon did not come from a release - professionally released balloons do not have ribbon attached.