• Malin Frick

Don't Inflate to Celebrate

Balloons, you see them in shopping centres, at kids’ birthday parties, at the opening of new shops and handed out by clowns. Balloons are seen as fun, a way to celebrate and show joy, but your ten minutes of fun can have severe long-term impacts on our environment and wildlife. Balloons are the perfect reflection of the throw-away society that we have become. Why do we find it so hard to make the connection between balloons and the destruction they have to the environment and wildlife?

Balloons are in the top three most harmful waste items to wildlife and the number one killer for seabirds. Birds and turtles not only ingest balloons, they actively select them as food. This is because a burst balloon often resembles a jellyfish, the natural food sources of many marine species like turtles. Ingesting balloons, and the clips and strings attached to them, can cause intestinal blockages and results in a slow painful death through starvation. Marine animals don’t have the gastrointestinal pH levels to breakdown a balloon and for turtles, it may also cause floating syndrome. Trapped gases in the gut can cause a turtle to become buoyant, unable to dive for food—making them vulnerable to boat strikes and leading to starvation and severe dehydration. Wildlife, both terrestrial and marine, can also become entangled in balloon ribbons or strings, causing injury or death through drowning, suffocation, or an inability to feed and avoid predators.

Many people and businesses argue that they dispose of their balloons “in a safe manner” or “they only use biodegradable balloons”. However, new research conducted in 2020 at the University of Tasmania has revealed the truth behind “biodegradable” balloons. The paper, Latex balloons do not degrade uniformly in freshwater, marine and composting environments, was released in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, and presents evidence that natural latex balloons do not decompose. The research concluded balloons labelled “100% biodegradable” and “100% natural latex rubber” do not degrade, but actually act like plastics in the environment.

Following four months of freshwater, saltwater, and industrial composting tests, the research determined that “bio” balloons retained their original size, shape and even some of their colour. This, the paper says, poses ongoing threats over several years to animals and marine environments, as balloons continue to leach chemicals like dyes, anti-fogging elements, and flame retardants. Latex balloons are often marketed as biodegradable because latex is a natural product, but the manufacturing process adds many other chemicals and compounds. To create high-quality, long-lasting balloons, latex needs to be vulcanised with sulphur and compounds such as heavy metals, plasticizers, flame retardants and pigments are added to it. All these compounds leak into our local environment, whether it is on land or in the ocean.

There are many other ways you can celebrate; flags, banners, streamers, kites, floating flowers, bubbles, light shows, ribbon dancers, fabric, wooden or paper decorations. Have fun, be creative but remember - you don’t need to inflate to celebrate!

Balloons are not used, given away or released at any Northern Beaches Council events or at any events approved by Council with their Waste Minimisation for Functions and Events Policy and balloons are not permitted in approved outdoor dining areas.

Malin is the founder of The Northern Beaches Clean Up Crew. Learn more at www.northernbeachescleanupcrew.com and follow @northernbeachescleanupcrew on social.