Helium Balloons! So Festive. So Awful for the Environment.

By: - September 12, 2019 12:00 am

This story was updated to correct the number of months equivalent to 720 days.

A colorful balloon floating over the wetlands might look pretty to some visitors, but it upsets Virginia Rettig when she spots one from her office window at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge about 5 miles north of Atlantic City, New Jersey. To her, it looks like litter.

“I just want to go out there and grab it myself,” she said in a phone interview from Galloway Township, where she manages the refuge. “If you would take a walk on the refuge beach, you would gather dozens and dozens of fallen balloons. Every single time you go out on the beach.”

Rettig said she’s frustrated by the public’s lack of understanding about the balloons’ harm when they eventually descend. Wildlife can become tangled in them or can eat the balloon scraps, with sometimes fatal consequences.

“People put them out as decoration and they almost always get away,” Rettig said. “When you are out on the beach or marsh, it’s litter.”

More states are considering banning planned releases of balloons, following the actions of coastal communities such as Ocean City, Maryland, and Nantucket, Massachusetts. Helium balloons, their strings and ties often end up snaring birds or aquatic wildlife, or get swallowed when the animals mistake the latex or foil for food.

But opponents of bans want to keep their traditions at places such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — where the release of thousands of balloons to the strains of “Back Home Again in Indiana” has since 1947 signaled the beginning of the Indianapolis 500 car race — and the University of Nebraska, where balloon releases herald the first touchdown of a football game.

Balloon-makers also insist the latex balloons decompose eventually and pose no threat to nature.

At least five states and around a dozen cities have regulations to limit planned balloon releases, including California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia. None of the laws targets an errant 2-year-old who accidentally lets go of a balloon (and who often ends up in tears). Rather, the laws govern planned releases, usually of around a dozen or more balloons.

Such legislation was introduced in another nine states this year. Of those, five failed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Bills are still pending in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York.

The Maine legislature considered a balloon-release ban during this year’s session, but the bill died, a victim of an overload of environmental bills, according to one of its sponsors, Democratic state Rep. Lydia Blume. The Maine Senate approved the bill, but it never reached the House floor.

“It’s harmful to our marine species,” Blume said in a phone interview. “We are so reliant on our marine economy in Maine, and lobstermen report seeing balloons everywhere in the ocean. Sea turtles think a busted balloon looks like a squid. We have laws against littering; this is littering from the air.”

Blume said she plans to introduce the bill again next year.

Maine Republican state Rep. Peter Lyford said he voted against the bill in committee because “I’ve had a cottage on the ocean for 15 years and I’ve never seen a balloon on it. I didn’t feel we needed another law for something so trivial.”

He suggested that it might be OK for a beach town like Old Orchard Beach in Southern Maine to adopt an ordinance against balloon releases, but that would not be practical in a northern city like Presque Isle, in far Northern Maine. Lyford, who owns an erosion control company, describes himself as a “conservationist but not an environmentalist. We re-create wetlands; I’m in touch with that stuff.”

California specifically prohibits foil balloons, which can tangle in electrical wires and catch fire.

Danielle Vosburgh, co-founder of Balloons Blow, a group based in Florida that opposes balloon releases, said more people are becoming aware of the problem with latex balloons.

“Most people realize we shouldn’t litter — that’s what balloon releases are, just litter. Just another wasteful single-use product.” She suggests alternatives including paper pompoms, or long ribbon “dancers” that can be waved.

But Lorna O’Hara, executive director of the Balloon Council, an industry group, said the answer is proper handling of balloons, not laws restricting them. She worries that banning balloon releases could lead to banning balloons altogether.

Orbis Research, a marketing firm with offices in Texas and India, reported in July that the worldwide party balloon industry is worth $636 million.

Sales grew 7.25% from 2017 to 2018, the market research firm said, and the market is expected to continue growing, to $877 million by 2025.

In the United States, sales also went up, from $127 million in 2017 to $132 million in 2018, the report said.

The Balloon Council recommends consumers weight balloons so they can’t fly away, avoid attachments such as plastic clips, and “pin it and bin it” — pop the balloons after use and properly dispose of them.

“We prefer education over legislation,” O’Hara said. “The product is not the culprit; it’s just human behavior.”

The balloon industry says latex balloons are “biodegradable,” meaning they disintegrate over time. Conservation groups disagree.

The Balloon Council cited a 2018 report from a Belgian biotechnology firm, OWS, finding that when balloon material was cut into pieces of 2 millimeters or less and put into soil, biodegradation was “advanced and still proceeding” after 720 days, or 24 months.

“Therefore,” the report said, “it can be concluded that material Balloon has the potential to demonstrate 90% relative biodegradation and to be considered biodegradable in soil.”

But anti-balloon activists point out that chopping up a balloon and burying it is not the same as a full balloon landing on the ground.

Balloons Blow cited a 1990 report from the Florida Department of Natural Resources finding that while many balloons that reached high altitude burst into bits, many did not, and intact balloons survived on the ground intact for six months. Balloons that deflated and fell into salt water were found to remain intact for at least a year.

Colorado State University chemistry professor Joseph DiVerdi said the question is not whether latex is “biodegradable” but rather how long it takes to degrade and under what conditions.

“How does it degrade relative to cellulose?” he said in a phone interview, referring to the fiber that makes up wood and cotton, among other things. “And under whatever conditions are being used. Latex is more resistant to degradation than cellulose.”

DiVerdi also noted that helium, used to make balloons lighter than air, is a finite resource needed for, among other things, magnetic resonance imaging, known as MRIs. He said that while helium should be conserved because it is a scarce resource and valuable to science and medicine, he’s not for banning balloon inflation altogether.

“I hope we can afford a little bit of helium for a birthday party,” he added. “I think sparing a little is OK. Squandering it is not.”

Helium shortages have been reported periodically, but the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, stores and conserves the essential element, which is produced largely as a biproduct of natural gas drilling.

So far, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which releases thousands of red, white and blue balloons, has been resistant to change, despite being under fire from Balloons Blow, which rented a nearby billboard saying: “BALLOONS POLLUTE AND KILL. #StopLitteringIMS.”

Asked about the pressure, speedway spokesman Alex Damron emailed a statement: “We continue listening to and evaluating feedback from multiple perspectives on the balloon release. We’re talking with experts to fully understand the impact of this practice and determine its status in the years ahead.”

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also under pressure from environmentalists to stop balloon releases, surveyed its students. Over half (51.5%) of the more than 3,800 students surveyed said they wanted to keep the releases, 42.5% said they wanted the tradition to end, and 6% said they didn’t care. Traditionally, the balloons are released over the football stadium after the Cornhuskers score their first touchdown. The practice remains.

“We believe we are using biodegradable balloons, and we had the vote last year and a majority of students voted [in the survey] to support the release, so we didn’t change it,” said Leslie Reed, public affairs director for the university. She said the balloons are 100% latex and have no plastic ties.

But Clemson University in South Carolina last year stopped the tradition started in 1983 of an orange and white balloon release during what the school calls the “most exciting 25 seconds in college football” as the team runs down the hill into the stadium at home games. The school found other jobs for the students who were hired to blow up the balloons.

Some smaller schools also have ended their balloon traditions. For example, the field hockey team at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, Maine, scrapped its balloon release at this year’s “Drive out Cancer” tournament and fundraiser in August.

Back at the wildlife refuge, Rettig said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have an official position on balloon releases. But she added, “We want to share with people that we find these in places we wish they weren’t. Any litter is a big concern on any land we are managing for wildlife.”

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.