You may have noticed two things (or perhaps not). One thing is that some of my recent tweets have been asking charities, mainly schools and children’s groups, not to hold balloon releases. The other thing you may have noticed is an increase in the numbers of balloon release events being organised and promoted. If there has indeed been the increase that is apparent, I think the reason for it is an example of Jevon’s paradox: Because balloon manufacturers are now promoting mainly biodegradable balloons, people think that it is acceptable to use them, and so lots more people are using them. Moreover, the internet makes balloons and party services much more easily available.
So, aren’t biodegradable balloons OK? Well, if you search online you’ll find a lot of links high up in the search results telling you that they are safe. These pages have been written and Search Engine Optimised by balloon manufacturers and retailers (e.g. The Balloon Council). They generally report from their own tests that biodegradable balloons take 6 months to break down (and with more digging, that they can take a year or more to degrade). Alongside this fact, they tell us that balloons are not harmful to the environment. This is plainly illogical. You would think they’re shooting themselves in the foot, except that their marketing seems to work.
A known psychological phenomenon is to notice only positive messages (‘safe’, ‘green’, ‘fun’) and not heed the negative messages (‘threat’, ‘deaths’, ‘pollution’) even if the latter are supported with more evidence and authoritative voices. Combine this phenomenon with the positive group emotions (or perhaps sensitivities around bereavement or illness) linked to balloon events and you have a heady mix. Once people have the idea of doing a balloon release and they’ve told others they will do it, they feel it is worse to let down people by doing something otherwise than it is to potentially kill wildlife. The majority of requests to find an alternative activity are met with passive aggression (‘it’s not my fault – we’re doing it for the children’) or outright hostility (actually, I won’t quote some of the abusive things that have been said to campaigners like Andy Mabbett).
Many of the discussions boil down to: who matters most, people or animals? One of many logical fallacies by the pro-ballooners is overlooking that balloon releases kill wildlife whereas they don’t physically save people from dying. Extending from this fallacy, they (we) don’t consider that if more wild habitats are more polluted and more species are depleted or become extinct, the more under threat becomes the human species. Ecologists who campaign to protect other species are not getting their priorities wrong – they’re seeing interconnections between species and looking at a longer timescale for the potential liveability of this planet.
The evidence that even biodegradable balloons cause pollution and wildlife deaths is extremely strong.
The plastic ribbons and valves of balloons are as problematic as the allegedly biodegradable materials. Joined together, or even in tiny fragments, balloon debris gets entangled in beaks, around necks and lodged in stomachs, causing slow suffocation or hunger. Marine biologists find worrying numbers of dead or dying birds, turtles and fish with plastic and balloon fragments in their stomachs. Over 95% of dead fulbars found in the North Sea have plastic, including balloon debris, in their stomachs.
There are arguments that other materials are responsible for these deaths, and that balloons make only a neglible contribution. The balloon promoters argue that ecology campaigners conflate or muddle plastic pollution and latex, but the reality is that all kinds of plastic and other debris mix up with the string/ribbon, tags and elastic fragments from balloons and create a lethal soup. Yes, the amount of plastic deposited in the ocean is shocking and so, quite rightly, marine ecology campaigners are trying to reduce it. 24 million pounds of plastic are manufactured every hour and c.10% of that finds itself in the oceans eventually. This is leading to ocean acidification, or in other words, 40% of our oceans are becoming dead zones. This doesn’t make polluting seas with balloon fragments acceptable.
Another factor is that increasingly balloons are filled with helium rather than air, and helium is readily available in supermarkets because it was stockpiled and sold too cheap. Not only does helium cause balloons to reach sea more quickly, it is in finite supply and will soon be unavailable for use in essential medical research and operations. It’s ironic then that so many balloon releases are organised for medical charities.
Balloons released become litter. There are litter laws for a reason – litter looks terrible, builds up to cause damage to ecosystems and endangers wildlife and public health. The basic litter law that applies to everyone can lead to a £2,500 fine (for a deliberate drop of even one item.) Beyond that, schools and other public bodies have a duty to avoid littering. It amazes me to see that scores of English schools or children’s groups every year decide to deliberately drop not just one item of litter but hundreds. These schools are often proud of their sustainability policies and make huge efforts to keep their grounds and buildings litter-free.
Some pictures to finish with: 200 reasons not to release balloons http://balloonsblow.org/photo-gallery