Balloon Litter

Balloon Litter – A Disintegrating Issue
by The Balloon Council

The balloon industry operates with an eye on the environment. Manufacturers try to ensure both the organic materials harvested and the production processes are environmentally sound. Retailers – mostly family-owned and operated small businesses – try to ensure their products are handled properly by informed consumers. The industry’s efforts are paying off.

According to the annual International Coastal Cleanup report prepared by the Center for Marine Conservation, balloon litter on the nation’s riverbanks and beaches has been steadily declining since 1993. However, in spite of this consistent downward trend, there have been ongoing claims and assertions that balloons, especially those used in releases, are a major source of litter in these areas.

Is balloon litter really a significant ecological issue? Let’s examine the facts.

Balloon Construction
Two distinctly different types of balloons are manufactured and sold in America today – latex and metallic.

Latex balloons are produced from the sap of the rubber tree. It is collected without harming the tree by using an environmentally safe, age-old process similar to that used for collecting the sap from maple trees for syrup. Because of rubber’s versatility and demand, these tropical rain forest trees are very valuable, highly coveted – and well-protected natural resources. These precious trees play an equally valuable ecological role in the earth’s fragile ecological balance by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which helps prevent global warming.

A latex balloon is made from 100 percent organic material and it’s 100 percent biodegradable. Stress caused by inflation starts this decomposition cycle. Exposure to sunlight accerlates the process – oxygen and ozone continue the molecular attack even in the dark. Deterioration is clearly evident within a few hours – it begins to oxidize or “frost” – and soon the balloon will break apart. Research has shown that under similar conditions latex decomposes as quickly as an oak leaf.

The second type of balloon sold in the United States is the metallic balloon. It is also commonly – but incorrectly – called mylar. It’s made from a metallized nylon (plastic) that is not biodegradable. Better known as silver balloons, they are much more expensive than their latex cousins and are never used in balloon releases.

Balloon Releases – Unjustified Concern
Mass balloon releases come under fire from misinformed critics who inaccurately claim releases generate a major source of litter and threaten the ecology. While anecdotal, subjective “evidence” is usually cited to support these assertions, corroborating factual data is rarely presented.

Important facts you should know about latex balloon releases:

  1. Only latex balloons are used by professionals in mass releases. Industry guidelines require these balloons to be self-tied and have no attached strings or ribbons – each released balloon is 100 percent biodegradable.
  2. Rarely do released balloons return to the earth’s surface intact. Studies show these balloons usually rise to an altitude of about five miles. At that point, freezing  and air pressure causes “brittle fracture” creating spaghetti-like pieces that scatter to the four winds.
  3. While some balloons don’t reach this altitude, research indicates that in an average 500-balloon release, the unexploded balloon return density is no greater than one per 15 square miles.
  4. Research show that regardless of the latex balloon’s ultimate form when it lands, it will decompose, forming a natural soil nutrient at the same rate as that of an oak leaf.

Dropping to Bottom of Litter List
In 1986 the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC) began a volunteer coastal cleanup program in Texas, went national in 1988 and international in 1989. Today, this campaign is known as the International Coastal Cleanup. In the United States it now involves more than 160,000 volunteers, who scoured 6,887 miles of beaches, oceans and waterways as part of the world’s largest marine trash haul.

In addition to removing debris from inland beaches, shorelines and waterways as well as underwater areas, the CMC collects and maintains detailed data on the types and amounts of debris removed each year. Even a casual look at this data reveals a downward trend in balloon litter which indicates balloon disposal labeling and good release management practices are working.

In 1994, the CMC’s U.S. Coastal Cleanup involved 139,746 volunteers and covered 5,200 shoreline and underwater miles. Balloons/balloon pieces were found at a rate of 6.93 per mile and accounted for .64 percent of the total debris collected – which resulted in balloons ranking 27th on CMC’s list of 80 common items.

By 1998, the CMC’s U.S. Coastal Cleanup grew to include 160,000 volunteers and covered 6,887 miles. Although the manpower and coverage increased so dramatically in 1997, the amount of balloons/balloon pieces found decreased to a rate of 5.5 per mile.

That’s improvement.

The CMC’s 1999 Coastal cleanup occurred in September, but the debris data will not ba available until the second quarter of 2000.

Bottom line – balloon litter has never been a significant part of the list of debris and it continues to drop towards the bottom of the CMC list. In 1994 balloons were ranked 27th and in 1997 balloons had fallen to 37th. This declining trend coincides with the industry’s public education programs and is evidence that the packaging information about proper disposal and release of balloons is working.

Carelessness Happens
However, a closer look at the make-up of the balloon litter found during these annual campaigns tells us the industry must continue to build consumer awareness through public education. For example, the makeup of the majority of balloons found during the cleanups are not the result of mass releases. In one Florida-wide cleanup there were 288 balloons/balloon pieces found. Of these:

  • 79 were water balloons which obviously are not used in releases
  • 38 were too small to have been released
  • 96 had string/ribbon/thread attached (never used in a release)
  • 2 were valved (never use in a qualified release)
  • 70 – less than 25 percent – might have been used in releases

Objectively judging the cleanup data and applying common sense, most open-minded observers examining the facts will arrive at the conclusion that balloons – including mass balloon releases – do not constitute a serious litter or ecological problem. The majority of balloon litter is caused through either accident or carelessness.

Even so, public and regulatory agency perceptions are critical and the balloon industry is working to increase consumers awareness of good balloon use, safety and disposal management. The industry’s goal is to remove balloons from the CMC Coastal Cleanup litter list. Here’s what the industry is doing to reach this goal.

Consumer Education Ongoing
Balloon manufacturers and distributors are working alongside retailers to educate consumers and create awareness of the value of good balloon management practices. This is being accomplished through an ever-expanding campaign of informative messages attached to balloon bouquets and printed on balloon packages and in-store information. Specifically, these messages are:

  1. Follow industry guidelines for balloon releases – use only hand-tied latex balloons and no plastic attachments.
  2. Never release metallic balloons.
  3. Never attach metallic ribbon to helium-filled balloons. An accidental release could become tangled in power lines and might cause a line fault.
  4. Always supervise young children under age 8. Never allow children to play with deflated balloons – or broken pieces – which could cause choking or suffocation.
  5. Always attach weights – mug, vase or heavy object – to helium-filled balloons to counter lift and prevent accidental release.
  6. Don’t tie helium-filled metallic balloons together and ensure each is individually attached to a counter-weight to prevent them from rising as a cluster which could catch on power lines.
  7. Properly dispose of balloons. Cut balloons with scissors directly above the knot or sealing point and immediately place in trash containers.

The balloon industry is intent on providing products that are fun and safe for everyone and don’t conflict with the environment. Industry leaders also recognize they have obligations to set industry standards that will help protect and preserve the environment and provide consumers with information that will encourage them to use the product safely and responsibly and dispose of it properly.

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