Once a special treat reserved for children’s birthdays, these days balloons mark many different occasions calling for symbols of joy or release. But for wildlife, balloons often mean nothing but trouble, particularly when set free.
“I can’t tell you how often I pull balloons out of trees and bushes and from gutters just in my neighborhood,” says Christine from Union County, New Jersey (a Defenders supporter who did not want her full name published). “Almost every time I’m outside I find a balloon.” And it pains her since she knows how balloons can harm wildlife.
Balloons rank as one of the top three deadliest forms of marine litter. That’s because deflated or burst balloons often make it to the ocean where they look like squid, jellyfish and other prey that marine life—particularly sea turtles and seabirds—pursue. Once ingested and lodged in the throat or intestines, the soft material can’t be expelled, and the animal chokes or slowly starves to death.
In a study for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, researchers monitoring five remote beaches with important sea turtle and bird nesting areas recorded 11,441 pieces of balloon debris from 2013 to 2017. The findings suggested mass latex balloon releases as a major source, but a large percentage of deflated foil balloons with messaging for special events like Mother’s Day and birthdays was also found, showing “the actions of individuals may also contribute significantly.”
Deflated balloons also trail ribbons made from hard-to-break plastic that can become wrapped around animals as they swim, hindering their movement and ability to feed. And it’s not just a coastal issue. Balloons can travel vast distances and have been tracked from Japan to Los Angeles (5,300 miles) and from Kansas to the Chesapeake Bay (1,200 miles), for example.
Those that don’t make it to the ocean can get snagged in tree branches, where their ribbons can entangle owls and other birds, injuring their wings or strangling them to death. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service even cites balloons as a threat to the recovery of desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert.
The balloon industry claims latex types, which contains plasticizers, are natural and will decompose in about five years. But as Christine points out, if true, they can still do a lot of damage in the interim. Foil balloons, made from nylon, polyethylene and metallic materials, never biodegrade.
“Education goes a long way in this particular instance,” says Christine. “If people had any idea the impact balloons have on wildlife, I think a lot of them would find an alternative to use for their celebrations.”
DO express yourself with flags, banners, posters or pinatas and by planting flowers or trees.
DO tie weights to balloons to ensure they don’t float away.
DO cut up balloons and secure them in the trash when finished.
DO speak out to prevent mass balloon releases in your locality.
DO educate others about the effects of balloons on wildlife.
DON’T release balloons outside.
DON’T assume a balloon is too far from the sea to harm wildlife.
Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program/CC BY 2.0