Balloons and effects on the environment


By Sally Campbell

At the gathering for Climate Action and Climate Justice on Saturday 6 November during COP26, in a gale and pouring rain in Brodick, many people spoke out about what one thing we can do, from supporting our young people in their demands for Climate Justice, to the more mundane things, like using refills and turning off the lights.

As we approach Christmas, we can all make a positive decision not to use any balloons or at least not masses of them. The latest craze on social media is the so-called “Influencers” using huge numbers of balloons for every occasion, to advertise themselves. Just remember that “What goes up, must come down.” And that is why Greenpeace does not, and will not, support balloon releases, and why the Isle of Man has recently banned them, along with skylanterns.













The latest craze is lots of them! Perhaps it is all about the sense of ‘entitlement’ culture’. “If I want them for this special occasion, I will have them”, often without thought of the consequences for the planet and wildlife. Egged on by social media, keeping up with the stars, with status and very much part of what is now called the “Attention Economy”, Influencers are becoming like brands in themselves, encouraging us to do as they do. Mass balloon lift-offs are common. But even one or two rising into the sky will have consequences.












Why No Balloons?

Modern balloons are made from materials such as rubber, latex, polychloroprene, metalized plastic or a nylon fabric. Long before there was something as stretchy as rubber, balloons existed. In the pre-rubber era, balloons came from animal bladders.

But have you ever wondered how latex balloons are made? They are made from natural rubber which is a mixture of organic compounds and water. It is a milky substance that comes from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). Then there are foil and plastic bubble Balloons – These balloons come is all shapes and sizes and are made from plastic so will not biodegrade, and it is therefore so important to ensure that these balloons never find their way into the environment.

Many party balloons are mostly made of a natural latex, and can be filled with air, helium, water, or any other suitable liquid or gas. The rubber’s elasticity makes the volume adjustable. They are praised as being biodegradable, but like most “greenwashing’ that only applies under certain circumstances. Although considered bio-degradable, this will take anywhere from 6 months to 4 years to decompose and they can wreak a lot of havoc before they do. So, no balloons are fully biodegradable. While natural latex may be biodegradable in the longer term, the addition of chemicals and dyes in balloon manufacture can make balloons persist for many months/years in the environment.

Mylar balloons, also known as foil balloons, are made from nylon/polyester with a metallic coating. These balloons look like shiny silver metal when plain, although they are often printed. Unlike traditional balloons, foil balloons are not porous, so air does not leak out of them easily, as long as they are properly sealed.

Big balloon releases may not use balloons made of plastic or tied with fancy ribbons, but the sheer scale of them is alarming – with hundreds or even more of balloons being released in one fell swoop. These do not simply disappear into the wide blue yonder; they obviously end up somewhere. Even if the balloons are not made of plastic and labelled ‘degradable’, that all rather depends on them degrading conveniently before they manage to choke or ensnare something.

A study identified balloons among the top three most harmful pollutants threatening marine wildlife, along with plastic bags and bottles. Marine birds in Scotland and others like the Albatross suffer because the pieces appear on the surface of the sea and look like small fish. Anybody visiting Ailsa Craig will be confronted by bird vomit consisting of plastic debris.

WHY are they damaging? Balloons end up in our waterways, oceans and parklands, causing significant damage to our environment and harming wildlife in many ways. Many animals mistake so-called ‘biodegradable’ latex balloons for food, which blocks their intestines and can kill them.

Balloons break down into small pieces often brightly coloured that can look like food and are often ingested by wildlife. Balloons are often found in the stomachs of dead animals; in bird chicks, dolphins, whales, and even albatrosses that spend all their lives at sea unless raising their chick. And then there are the plastic balloon sticks and strings. When these end up in the ocean they do not biodegrade and, instead, break down into smaller pieces, making them look like the perfect food to marine life. Wildlife can become entangled in ribbons and strings that were attached to balloons, taking the animal at risk of being strangled to death. Whilst latex balloons are biodegradeable, this will take anywhere from 6 months to 4 years to decompose and they can wreak a lot of havoc before they do, in small pieces usually in the ocean if they are helium filled and have risen up 5 miles, where they burst due to expansion of the helium at lower atmospheric pressure.

WHAT ABOUT HELIUM? Many balloons are now delivered charged with Helium gas. It is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert gas, Helium is a gas like air; in fact, air has some helium in it. But helium is lighter than air. You frequently see small tanks ready for action near balloon sellers! Helium is in short supply and it is more than just the sellers of party balloons who should worry. This rare element is critical to medicine where ultra-low-temperature liquid helium is used to cool the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and NMR spectrometers. Other applications of Helium gas include treatments for respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema. About a third of all produced helium is used in these medical instruments with industrial applications using up most of the rest.

Helium is also used as an inert-gas atmosphere for welding metals such as aluminium; in rocket propulsion; in meteorology (as a buoyant gas for instrument-carrying balloons); also in medical cryogenics. Cryotherapy is one of the oldest methods known to heal wounds and relieve pain.

The entire helium industry relies on production of the gas from just 14 sites worldwide, with around 40% coming from the US and lesser quantities from Algeria, Qatar and Russia. The growth of medical cryogenics and industrial uses has caused a dramatic imbalance between supply and demand. Helium occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust and it has occasionally been encountered when companies have drilled for petroleum gas. Even then, it is present in very low concentrations (often less than 1% of the total gas).

LEGALITY It is now illegal to release sky lanterns or helium balloons on the Isle of Man.
The legislation, which also bans selling the items, has been made to combat litter, prevent fires and protect wildlife. The move has been hailed as a “positive step” from environmental groups such as the Manx Wildlife Trust. Some people in the UK think helium balloons should be banned. The helium balloons eventually fall to pieces, often far from their launch site and end up cluttering the land, waters and harming wildlife.

Beware the PR of the industry. “Within our industry, we promote best practice which states that foil balloons, and helium balloons with any non-biodegradeable attachments such as valves and ribbons MUST NOT be released”. Only latex balloons up to a maximum of 12” and hand tied are allowed to be used. Just how many people read that label? On their release the balloons should rise to about 5 miles high, at which point they shatter into tiny fragments and return to earth where they decompose in about the same amount of time as an oak leaf (INCORRECT Greenwashing) and have a minimal effect on the environment (also INCORRECT).

PR on Helium for medical ‘v’ balloon use
“In order to provide a definitive, fact-based view on the difference between medical and balloon gas, BOC (British Oxygen Company) provide the following statement for use with the party industry”. “It’s important to be aware that there is a distinction between pure, liquid helium and impure, gaseous helium. Gas companies prioritise supplies of pure, liquid helium for critical medical uses e.g.MRI scanners in hospitals, ensuring that they can remain fully operational. Helium for balloons is a different product – it is impure gaseous helium produced as a by-product of supplying liquid helium for the MRI market – a market which makes up about forty percent of the helium business in the UK. Impure, gaseous helium cannot be used directly, in medical MRI scanners or in other applications that use super-conducting magnets. Impure helium can be recovered and reprocessed for use. (But not if 5 miles high and gas already released and lost for ever as balloon burst).

Making choices…for a wedding the balloons may well last longer than the marriage and for baby’s first birthday, in pieces after exploding 5 miles up and falling to earth will last longer than the baby’s life even if that is 100 years! So next time you see even a solitary balloon floating up, up and away, remember that at one end of that story is probably a sad child, but at the other may well be a dead turtle, dolphin or seabird. After all, what goes up, must come down, even if it is far, far away from your garden by then.

Sally Campbell
November 2021

Posted by Willie Mackenzie. End Ocean Plastics: Why Greenpeace doesn’t support Balloon Releases 16th February 2018