Release a helium balloon on a bright, sunny day, watch it magically float up into the sky, and I dare you not to feel some variety of exhilaration, a sense of wonder, a longing for freedom, suspense…. It’s like a 21-gun salute, but quieter. It’s like a Chinese Sky Lantern ceremony, but for the daytime. People release big bunches of balloons for memorial services, grand openings, birthday parties and parades. It’s just a Thing We Do, and it’s fun. But it’s really, really terrible for the environment.
When a balloon ascends into the heavens, it doesn’t end up on Jupiter. You know this. Although a helium balloon can rise to altitudes of five miles (8 kilometers) into Earth’s atmosphere, it’s got to come back down eventually, and when it does, it wreaks some havoc. That colorful little scrap of latex may end up living in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
It could get tangled up in the flippers of a sea turtle or be eaten by one who mistakes it for a jellyfish. Or a bighorn sheep could mistake it for forage, or it might land in some farmer’s pasture, where a cow chokes on the string. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, animals of the land, sea and air are equally susceptible to mistaking deflated balloons for food, or, arguably worse, getting tangled up and strangled by the ribbon attached to it.
And it’s true, some balloons do break down eventually. A big part of the reason releasing balloons is permitted in so many places is that latex balloons are technically biodegradable — it takes one between six months and four years to break down completely, though they deteriorate in seawater more slowly than they do on land. Mylar balloons, on the other hand, are made out of NASA-grade nylon and are not biodegradable, so they can hang out in the environment indefinitely.
So, if balloons in the environment are so bad, why isn’t releasing them outlawed? Well, in many states and municipalities, it is. And a few places in the U.K. and Australia have banned the release of balloons of all kinds. In the U.S., California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia and some cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and Huntsville, Alabama have put the kibosh on balloon releases. But the thing about helium balloons is they don’t care about our random geographic boundaries. They land wherever they want to land.
Hundreds of balloons drifting slowly into the wild blue yonder might give you the feels, but is a brief display of color and zero confetti cleanup at your party worth a bunch of dead birds and turtles and many beaches full of trash? Absolutely not. But, on a related note, the world may be running out of helium soon anyway — giving the turtles and the birds a reason to throw their own great big party, sans balloons.
Helium balloons can interfere with airplanes. In Singapore, you have to get permission from a government aviation regulation agency in order to release balloons.