Balloons blow! What goes up, must come down!

10-Mar-2021

There’s a looooong list of things we always hope to see in Victoria: whales, porpoises, seals and sea lions, sea otters, eagles, an incredible variety of seabirds, and of course the fabulous scenery.

But there’s one group of items we’d like to permanently cross off our sightings list—balloons.

Sadly, we’re nowhere close to that point. Over a nine-month period in 2019, Eagle Wing boat crew picked up dozens of latex and mylar balloons floating aimlessly on the Salish Sea, some of them close to whales and other wildlife. We’ve already begun the tally for 2020.

Some of the balloons picked up by Eagle Wing crew in 2019

While some of these balloons may have been released accidentally, it’s likely many of them were deliberately released by well-meaning people and organizations at special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, celebrations of life, sporting events, business openings, and so on.

But the who, why, where and when doesn’t really matter. What’s important to know is that releasing balloons—any type, anywhere, anytime—is NOT okay. It is littering. It is environmentally destructive. And it is incredibly dangerous to wildlife.

And here’s the kicker—it’s 100 per cent preventable!

A burst balloon, resembling a jellyfish / Photo courtesy of Balloons Blow

A little knowledge goes a long way, so here are some common balloon myths, debunked.

“When released, balloons rise to heaven and disappear”

No, they don’t. They eventually fall to earth or the ocean as litter. Some land completely intact. Others burst. Many of these balloons or their fragments will end up in the ocean where they can be mistaken as food by marine animals and ingested, leading to loss of nutrition, internal injury, starvation and death. String or ribbon attached to the balloons can wrap around fins, flippers, necks and other body parts, causing injury, slow starvation and suffocation.

“It’s okay, my balloons are biodegradable”

Don’t be fooled. There’s no such thing as an “environmentally friendly” balloon. Latex balloons are widely considered a safer option than mylar and are often marketed as “biodegradable.” But they’re still dangerous. The claim that they degrade about as quickly as an oak leaf (roughly four years) does not necessarily apply in a cold marine environment where they may never fully decompose. Until they do, they put wildlife at risk.

Guests with a cluster of balloons picked up on a tour Photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

“I don’t live near the ocean so my balloon won’t end up there”

Wrong. Distance from the ocean doesn’t matter. Balloon waste that falls into lakes and rivers may eventually flow out into the ocean. And airborne balloons can travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to pollute the most remote and pristine places. How far? In 1998 a balloon released at the Olympics in Nagano, Japan, landed in Los Angeles 49 hours later. That’s a distance of about 5,300 miles!

“Balloons are not a widespread pollution problem”

Yes, they are. Balloon waste is a significant part of the global marine garbage problem. The Ocean Conservancy reports that in its International Coastal Cleanup from 2008 through 2016, a total of 280,293 balloons were found along US coastlines—an average of 31,143 each year. That’s just the US. Think about that.

A dead fur seal tethered in balloon ribbon / Photo by Sue Pemberton courtesy of Balloons Blow

People who release balloons don’t care about the environment”

Not necessarily. It can be a simple lack of awareness. After four years monitoring five uninhabited beaches, researchers in the state of Virginia discovered that balloon fragments were the most prevalent type of marine debris. When they asked people who release balloons where they thought they went, the number one answer was “I never even thought about that.”

“There’s a lot of plastic in the ocean, why do a few balloons matter?”

The first part of this statement is true. Each year, eight million tonnes of plastic pollution enters the ocean from land, globally. This is like dumping the content of one garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. Tackling this problem is going to take a concerted, global effort. But not releasing (or even buying) a balloon is an individual decision that each one of us can make.

Eagle Wing naturalist Molly with a balloon picked up on a tour Photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

What can you do?

There are many alternatives to balloon releases. You can still have fun, celebrate and remember a loved one with environmentally friendly alternatives. Here are a few ideas.

  • Plant a tree or flowering bush
  • Spread floating flowers
  • Disperse wildflower seeds native to your area
  • Blow bubbles
  • Light candles (but definitely NOT sky lanterns!)
  • Create a wildlife garden to attract birds and butterflies
  • Sponsor a bench at a scenic spot
  • Donate a book to the library

And as always…

  • Dispose of waste properly, no matter where you are
  • Remember that land and ocean are connected, no matter where you live
  • Practice the “4Rs”
    • REDUCE the amount of waste you produce
    • RE-USE items when you can
    • RECYCLE as much as possible
    • REFUSE unnecessary single-use items, like plastic straws or cutlery
Mylar balloon near a long-beaked common dolphin / Photo courtesy of Balloons Blow

To learn more about balloons and marine plastic debris, we suggest the following links.

Blog written by by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours marine naturalist.

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