Enough with the Balloons, Already!

Image of a multi colored balloon release into a blue sky
It’s not pretty, it’s destructive!

An article about the preparations for this year’s Indianapolis 500 race caught my eye last week. In the story, Indy Star reporters check the claim made by the organizers that the balloons they release every year to celebrate the event are biodegradable and thus pose no threat to the environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reporters found this claim to be false. At the end of their tests, “all of the balloons were still well enough preserved to pose the types of risks feared by wildlife officials.” In other words, the balloons aren’t really biodegradable, and even if they were, they are still dangerous for wildlife.

Balloon releases have been a pet peeve of mine for a long time – it’s just sanctioned littering, except the trash doesn’t clutter up the area where the balloons are released. Instead, some other community, whether human or animal, has to deal with the (literal) fallout. It is truly one of the most environmentally irresponsible things we can do, and it is in no way a crucial component of life here on earth. No one dies if you don’t release hundreds of balloons into the atmosphere, but wildlife will die when your sky trash falls back to earth. From the article: “Emma Nelson, a biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that some species, including sea turtles, mistake debris from balloons and plastic bags for food. The animals either suffocate to death or starve with a belly full of plastic.”

In the months leading up to the Indy 500, a billboard appeared in Indianapolis about a mile from the Speedway that said “BALLOONS POLLUTE AND KILL. #StopLitteringIMS BalloonsBlow.org.” The media company that owns the billboard took it down early, supposedly due to pressure from the Speedway organization, although a spokesperson denied this. The media company, Outfront, claimed the billboard mistakenly slipped by them and should not have been put up because it was “an attack ad.” Apparently, attacking pollution is too bold a stance for outdoor advertising.

There was one other element to this story that I found interesting, in the article about the balloon testing: “Even the Balloon Council, which represents the industry, changed its stance on balloon releases last year from neutral to opposed. The group now recommends that balloons be weighted or tied down, and then popped and disposed of after they’re used.” Wait, what? There’s a “Balloon Council”?

Yes, there is – it is a lobbying group that advocates for balloon manufacturers and consumers, and it has this curious paragraph on its website: “At the time that TBC was established, several state legislatures were considering well-intentioned but ill-conceived laws, which would have severely limited consumer’s rights to obtain full enjoyment from balloons. These legislative attempts were based on rumor, inaccurate news reports and ‘expert’ assertions.” I have no idea what this could possibly refer to; there is some mention of consumer product safety issues which TBC worked on, as well as some discussion of the helium shortage, but I would love to know what particular laws would have limited our right to “obtain full enjoyment from balloons.”

But there is conflicting information on their website, which is likely due to a failure to update all parts of the site when a change is made. It’s true that the TBC has a statement about balloon releases that says “balloons should not be released.” But the statement also claims that “in the past TBC didn’t advocate for or against balloon releases, we advised people on the best practices to minimize environmental impact such as only using latex and not adding strings.” This appears to be false, since another page on the TBC website says the following:

Bottom line – balloon litter has never been a significant part of the list of debris and it continues to drop towards the bottom of the CMC’s [Center for Marine Conservation] list. The declining trend coincides with the industry’s public education programs and is evidence that the packaging information about proper disposal and releasing of balloons is working. […] Objectively judging the cleanup data and applying common sense, most open minded observers examining the facts will arrive at the conclusion that balloons – including mass balloon releases – do not constitute a serious litter or ecological problem. The majority of balloon litter is caused through either accident or carelessness.

The above section then links to the new position statement against balloon releases. So, balloon releases aren’t a problem, but maybe we should do something about this non-problem that we’ve advocated FOR all these years. In any case, the evidence is clear that balloon releases are terrible for the environment and are never really needed. Act accordingly, balloonistas!

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