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Lost Balloons and the Impact on the Environment

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 10 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Lost Balloons And The Impact On The Environment

Balloons are wonderful things – they express fun, laughter, celebration – and when one or many are released into the air, to watch them slowly rise into the sky is a joyous thing.

But recently, there has been a move to try to persuade people not to let go of their balloons - or to find an alternative way of celebrating an event. Why? Because balloons can kill.

Balloons Can Kill

It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it – but actually lost balloons can have a devastating impact on the environment and our marine life in particular.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

It’s an old adage – but that doesn’t make it any less true. For every lost balloon – whether by accident or not, latex litter is the result.

Balloons rise to an altitude of about five miles before bursting as a result of the surrounding air pressure and fragmenting. The pieces then fall to earth and add to the general debris of litter.

Balloon manufacturers will tell you that this is no cause for alarm because latex (from which most balloons are made), is biodegradable. This is true, but it can take six months or more for the rubber to break down and if not exposed to water or sun, may take longer.

Of more concern, however are the Mylar metallised balloons, from which helium filled balloons are mostly made. This foil-like material is recyclable but not biodegradable and so will persist in the environment for a long time if released into the air.

Danger To Marine Life

Of all balloons released into the air, 90-95% rise and burst, but this means that a crucial 5-10 percent do not. Typically, they will drift at a lower altitude before settling on the land or sea semi-inflated.

It is these balloons which pose the worst hazard to marine life. Whales, turtles, fish, dolphins, and sea birds confuse them with jelly fish, squid, or other of their natural prey and swallow them. The balloons then lodge in the animal and it either blocks their gut, causing slow and painful death by starvation, or strands of latex or string is ingested and gets tangled inside them.

An infant sperm whale and several marine turtles – already near extinction - have been known to perish in this way.

National Ban On Balloon Releases

When in 1997, a survey was carried out as part of the damage assessment balloons can do, 538 balloons were found on 169km of coast with an incidence of 3 balloons per 3 km of surveyed coast.

However the Marine Conservation Society recently stated that this number has increased 3-fold since this survey was done and they are again trying to raise awareness of the havoc lost balloons can cause by launching their ‘Don’t Let Go’ campaign and lobbying for a ban to mass balloon releases.

What You Can Do to Help

If you want to help protect our precious sea life and keep our beaches and seas clean, then there are several basic things you can do to help.

  • Always keep a tight grip on balloons. If your child has a balloon, tie it securely to their wrist or coat, so that it can’t drift away by mistake.
  • Find another way of celebrating or commemorating an event than by releasing balloons.
  • Tell people you know who may be unaware of the dangers innocent-seeming balloons can be to our sea mammals.
  • Inform the Marine Conservation Society about any events you may know of which plan to release balloons.
  • Volunteer to help with Beachwatch, a scheme to help keep Britain’s beaches tidy.
  • Weight down any balloons you are using at celebratory events and dispose of carefully after use.
  • If you have to use balloons, opt for latex rather than Mylar as being the greener option

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