'Nature Nearby': Hold On, Party-Goers! Balloons Are Killing Wildlife

‘Nature Nearby’: Hold On, Party-Goers! Balloons Are Killing Wildlife

  • Blaine mugshot“Nature Nearby” is written by Forest Preserve District of Kane County Nature Programs Manager Valerie Blaine, whose home base is Creek Bend Nature Center in LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve. You may reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com

Buying balloons for your Fourth of July Party? Celebrating a graduation with a balloon release? Decorating an outdoor party with balloons?

Hold on, party-goers. Take a minute to think about those festive floating objects. You may or may not intend to release the balloons, but a lot of them will inevitably go skyward. What goes up, must come down, and they will come back down to the ground, eventually. As pretty as they are afloat, they become unsightly litter and a hazard to wildlife on the ground.

balloons blow IMG_1857There are different kinds of balloons, with varying staying power in the environment. Some are made with latex from the rubber tree, mixed with pigments. Latex is a “natural” material, and it is biodegradable. The length of time it takes for latex balloons to decompose depends on temperature, moisture, and exposure to sunlight. A balloon left on the lawn after a water balloon fight will break down faster than a balloon buried in the ground.

The second kind of balloon is made of metalized nylon. These are the shiny “Happy Birthday!” ones with all kinds of colorful designs. Metalized nylon balloons have more bling than latex ones — and they’re more expensive.

Metalized nylon lacks the tiny pores that latex has, so the shiny balloons remain inflated longer. Eventually, though, they descend and land on terra firma. They become entangled in trees, mired in mud, stuck in bushes, you name it. They are not biodegradable. Wherever they land, that’s where they’ll be, forever and a day.

As much concern as the balloon is the ribbon attached to it. When a latex balloon floats up in the sky with a long ribbon on it, the ribbon will outlast the balloon itself. Latex balloon fragments break down into small pieces, but the long ribbon remains.

Over the years I have found countless balloon ribbons in forest preserves, parks, and wetlands. (There’s usually a bit of balloon left on the end.) The ribbons are indestructible. No matter how hard you pull on them, they will not break. I’ve had to use a knife and scissors to extract tangled ribbons from plants.

There has been some concern about the use of helium in the balloons. Helium is a rare element, and supplies have been scarce up until very recently. A discovery of a large helium source in Tanzania, reported on June 29, 2016 by the website phys.org, may alleviate concerns about supplies. In addition to filling balloons, helium is used in the medical field, in fiber optics, and other industries, so there is still a need to consider conservation.

beautiful girls celebrate birthday in summer park outdoors

This might look like a fun outdoor party, but those balloons in the background can be a danger to wildlife.

Some people may say, “Oh, those environmentalists are just a bunch of party-poopers!” Balloons are pretty, and festive. As with anything, though, we need to think about the “afterlife” of balloons. What happens to them when we’re finished celebrating?

Yes, balloons are fun, but when the party’s over they don’t disappear into thin air. Releasing dozens (or hundreds) balloons to congratulate graduates or to wish a child happy birthday is like saying, “Here, we’re giving the gift of litter for your generation to deal with!”

You can have a lot of fun without balloons. The atmosphere of your party can be festive in many other ways. Think of the environment when you decorate, and try alternatives to balloons to jazz up your party. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Bubbles — Growing in popularity, bubbles are a good alternative to balloons and achieve the effect of sending good wishes heavenward
  • Ribbon dancers — Just as colorful as balloons, streamers are not only pretty, but they provide the opportunity for guests to dance!
  • Pinwheels and garden spinners — Powered by the wind, these eye-catching decorations add a festive touch to an outdoor party.

Have more earth-friendly alternatives? I’d love to hear your ideas. Email me at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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About the Forest Preserve District of Kane County

The Forest Preserve District of Kane County acquires, holds and maintains land to preserve natural and historic resources, habitats, flora and fauna. The district restores, restocks, protects and preserves open space for the education, recreation and pleasure of Kane County citizens. For more information, visit the district’s website or find them on social media via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Also, sign up for the quarterly TreeLine Newsletter.

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