Here’s What Really Happens When You Let Go of a Balloon

February 3, 2020 at 11:22 am

Balloons may seem like the life of the party, but they are the third deadliest form of litter on the planet

Balloons kill more marine life than any form of plastic other than fishing nets and plastic bags, according to a recent report by the Ocean Conservancy.

They are the #1 plastic killer of seabirds, another study finds.

The reason balloons are so lethal is that they’re able to squeeze into stomach cavities and then open up and block them, researchers say.

“A hard piece of plastic has to be the absolute wrong shape and size to block a region in the birds’ gut, whereas soft rubber items can contort to get stuck,” Lauren Roman, a marine scientist at the University of Tasmania and lead author of the study, told ABC News.

Not only are the balloons mistaken for food and swallowed, their strings can also tangle animals up to the point they can’t move, eat or fly.

A bird caught in a balloon in the UK. Credit: Balloons Blow/David Steely

For example, this young Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was found on the shore of Surfside, Texas. with a clump of ribbons wrapped tightly around her neck, red balloon still attached.

Credit: Justin Williams, Turtle Island Restoration Network

A volunteer with the Turtle Island Restoration Network rushed the exhausted animal to a rescue center. She’s expected to survive, but will always bear a ring of scars on her neck that had formed from what was likely years of being tangled.

“It’s not uncommon for sea turtles to be found emaciated, sick or dead, only to find out later after X-rays or a necropsy that they’ve ingested a balloon,” Nick Mallos, Trash Free Seas program director for Ocean Conservancy, told The Dodo.

“Fragments or even balloons with the ribbons still attached have been found in their GI tracts.”

After eating a discarded balloon, a sea turtle passes the ribbon. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Even if balloons are released far away from oceans or waterways, they often still end up there. They can also get caught in trees, where they can entangle birds and other forest-dwelling animals.

“Balloons have been found to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles,” Mallos said. “There have even been reports of balloons released in the UK ending up in Australia and Hong Kong.

A bird found tangled in a balloon in Australia. Credit: Balloons Blow/Marina DeBris

Even balloons advertised as “biodegradable” take between 6 months to a year to biodegrade, and even longer in salt water, which acts as a preservative.

“The balloon industry markets them as being biodegradable, but they aren’t,” Danielle Vosburgh, founder of South Florida-based nonprofit Balloons Blow, told The Dodo.

“It’s the only industry that encourages people to litter with their product — and once it happens, those balloons last a very long time.”

Vosburgh and a friend collect thousands of balloons on Florida beaches each year.

Balloons may seem like an indispensable part of the party, but there are several eco-friendlier alternatives to brighten up your next celebration:

Ribbon dancers and kites: Ribbon dancers and kites are just as beautiful and more engaging than balloons, as they require guests to twirl, run and move around. Plus they can take them home and keep them “forever” rather than litter them into the environment after 24 hours of decoration.

Garden spinners and pinwheels: If you’re trying to draw attention to your party, event or place of business, colorful garden spinners or flashy pinwheels do the job just as well as balloons without killing birds.

Tissue Paper Pompoms – For some color burst at parties or celebrations, these colorful tissue paper poof balls make beautiful hanging decorations. You can easily make your own and throw them in your compost when you’re done.

Floating flowers – For some, the upward drifting of balloons gives them a sense of letting go, at a funeral or memorial service. Floating flowers  down a calm stream can give you the same feeling. Be sure to use native flowers.