Single-use plastics have been attracting a lot of attention lately. Starbucks has converted to strawless lids, Kroger is phasing out plastic bags, and plastic water bottles have long since gone out of style. Environmental movements are putting pressure on companies and lawmakers all over the world in an effort to reduce plastic waste. Another threat to the environment is one that might not immediately come to mind—balloons. While the debate over plastic balloons is nothing new, Clemeson University brought the issue back into the spotlight when they announced their decision to end a decades-long tradition of releasing nearly 10,000 balloons into the air before football games.
Mass balloon releases are a common way to celebrate graduations, weddings, and other special occasions. Unfortunately, sending plastic to whimsically float through the air is not without consequences. Balloons filled with helium can travel long distances, eventually making their way back to the earth as litter. The plastic pieces may look like food to ocean-dwelling creatures in the same way that plastic bags can resemble a tasty jellyfish meal for a sea turtle. Additionally, the long strings threaten both terrestrial and aquatic animals who may ingest or become tangled in them. There have even been documented cases of birds collecting the clips at the end of balloon strings to bring back to the nest as food for their offspring. Furthermore, the balloon will eventually break down and contribute to the growing body of microplastics in our waters. Microplastics are bits of plastic that are smaller than 5mm diameter. Their small size contributes to widespread ecosystem damage as they physically harm wildlife and spread harmful chemicals throughout our waterways. Microplastics have even been found in seafood products and sea salt produced for human consumption.
The issue of balloon releases is beginning to make its way into the public eye and environmental groups are actively working to increase awareness. Time magazine reports that a campaign in Virginia has pushed for alternatives to balloon releases during weddings, while a town in Rhode Island banned balloon sales altogether. One group with a large online presence is Balloons Blow, a Florida-based non-profit organization with a number of great resources for the public.
Some suggested alternatives include planting flowers or trees in remembrance, decorating events with paper banners and pompoms, or blowing bubbles into the air. Sometimes, however, compromise is the best option. There are steps that can be taken to protect the environment if ridding an event of balloons is not an option. First, purchase only biodegradable balloons and use natural strings instead of plastic. Second, make sure that the balloons don’t float away so that they can be properly disposed of after the event.
What are some other alternatives to balloon releases?
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