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Imagine a group of hundreds of people of all ages standing in the middle of a public park. There is excitement in the air as, on the signal from the leader, they drop a deflated balloon on the ground. Everyone smiles and cheers … and they walk away, going back to their lives and leaving a park covered in pieces of plastic and ribbon.

If this happened, would it matter that the balloons were “biodegradable”? How would you feel if your dog—or a small child—ate one of these pieces or got caught up in a string? If it’s a problem within your community, then shouldn’t it also be considered a problem when the balloons are filled with helium and sent off into the wide world where they can affect thousands of locations?

I have written a lot about balloon releases lately (specifically here and here), and I think my obsession with them is trying to understand the logic behind it. Because, pardon the pun, the scenario described above just wouldn’t fly. But otherwise sensible and well-meaning people and charities see nothing wrong with releasing hundreds or even thousands of balloons, whether to commemorate a loved one or to raise awareness for a cause.

In thinking about it a bit more—and you’re probably not surprised to find I spend far too much time thinking about litter—I wonder whether the reasoning is down to several factors:

  • Instant gratification: With different colours and shapes against a (hopefully) blue sky, the release of hundreds or even thousands of balloons has a big visual impact that can be enjoyed right then and there. As society moves towards faster ways of doing things, from contactless payments in store to one-click online shopping, is it any wonder that the quick, bold solution is favoured over alternatives like tree planting or seed scattering, even though the results of the latter can be enjoyed for months or years?
  • Biodegradeable = Invisible: It doesn’t of course, but “biodegradable” has become conflated with harmless. I think people have come to associate the word with apple cores and orange peels, and expect balloons to vanish just as quickly and with the same minimal environmental impact. But it simply isn’t the case: I have a supposed eco-balloon left over as part of #LitterWatch2017 that hasn’t changed at all in the past 17 months that it’s been outside. Even if a balloon were to degrade in months or weeks, what happens to the wildlife who eats it or gets caught in a ribbon before that point?
  • Out of sight is out of mind: Finally, unlike the example that started this blog post, the litter of a balloon release is unlikely to affect those who actually release them. They will be picked up on coastlines miles away, or will kill or injure livestock and wildlife far away from the actual release site. The people who participated in the release will be none the wiser as to the results of their actions.

With environmental issues like this, it is necessary that we all think critically and ask questions; we must beware of greenwashing. For example, I read a balloon website once that made the claim that their balloons were as biodegradable as oak leaves (note the association with something natural). This made me wonder how long it took oak leaves to degrade, and, thanks to a bit of googling, I found that the answer is 2+ years due to the tannins in the leaves. Indeed, oak leaves take longer to degrade than most other leaves.

Back to the topic on hand: There is no such thing as a safe balloon release. They and sky lanterns are dangerous to the environment and set a bad example. There are so many ways of celebrating an occasion or commemorating a life that can have a positive long-term impact—isn’t that far more logical?

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