Plea to Churches and Organizations: No Balloon Releases   Leave a comment

I meant to do this post earlier in the week but our internet went out (ok, it was just the wireless, but it took all my “spare” time to figure out the problem and correct it). This past weekend I was horrified to watch as people at my church did balloon releases after each of the Masses as part of the Pentecost celebration. The person who organized it said, “It’s ok, the balloons are biodegradable.” Uh-huh, that makes it perfectly ok; and the several foot long plastic ribbon tied to each balloon? Yes, there is great symbolism to balloon releases, but does everyone remember that there was also great symbolism to throwing rice on newlyweds?

This is not an area of particular scientific expertise for me, but the claim that the balloons are biodegradable is a bit greenwash-ey to me. Yes, if they are made of latex and not plastic or metal, they will biodegrade. However, how much time will it take? I’m willing to bet that if you through a balloon in your compost heap it would be the last thing in there to biodegrade. I did a web search and there are lots of web pages by balloon sellers that say that when the balloons reach 5 miles up they shatter into tiny pieces that decompose quickly. Again, I’m not sure about what the actual temporal definition of “quickly” is. But: how many balloons never make it that high? How many don’t have enough helium to get up that high, or get snagged in a tree or power line or something else tall, or get popped before reaching the shattering height so that they fall to the ground in large pieces? How many of the balloons, pieces, or shattered bits deposit in places that are not conducive to decomposition and so take even longer to decompose? In the intervening time those pieces can be eaten by wildlife, and latex is not known as a quality food with good nutritive value. Then there’s the question of dyes. I’m not comfortable eating or using products containing the dyes that the FDA has approved for food, drugs, and/or cosmetics; what types of dyes are used to color balloons and what effect could they have when the latex decomposes and/or when an animal eats the balloon fragment?

Even if you are ok with all of the concerns about the balloon itself, the ribbon is a huge problem. Even all those balloon websites say that balloon releases should only be done with ribbon-less balloons. The ribbons are not biodegradable. They can get tangled in trees, power lines, or other tall things. When they come back down to the ground they can entrap animals in their tangles. And they will last forever. Eventually weathering will cause them to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. But things that don’t biodegrade just keep fragmenting, they keep the same molecular structure and don’t get broken down back into basic carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc.

So here’s my plea: Just don’t do it. There are other rituals that can be done instead that have a smaller footprint and less risk to the environment. If you just HAVE to do a balloon release make it small and release balloons only, hand tied, with no ribbons or plastic attachments.

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Posted June 16, 2011 by mayakey in environment

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