The Breakdown On Biodegradable Balloons

by Nicola Temple on September 26, 2011

Recently, my son asked if he could have a balloon at a festival. I said no. I explained to him that they weren’t good for the environment and luckily, he was satisfied with my response. However, driven by feelings of being a harsh parent, I did feel the need to do some research and look at options for biodegradable balloons.

After all, as a child I was fascinated with balloons – picking the right one, watching as the string was carefully tied to my wrist, and then running for the joy of watching it bob along above me.

Of course, the experience never ended well, whether it was an explosion, a gentle drift up into the atmosphere, or a slow wilt in the corner of my bedroom.  Yet, I loved them, so how could I deny my son this childhood rite of passage?

So, it was off to the computer to find out whether there was such a thing as eco friendly balloons and to read scholarly articles about the gut contents of marine animals.

There are two main types of balloons sold in the US, latex and mylar. Latex balloons are 100% biodegradable as latex is derived from flowering plants, and mainly from the sap of rubber trees of the genus Hevea. The latex is dyed usually using non-toxic coloring or even soy-based inks.

A non-peer-reviewed study in 1989, commissioned by the National Association of Balloon Artists in the UK, showed that latex balloons take approximately six months to biodegrade. It also found that most latex balloons filled with helium burst into tiny pieces once they reached 5 miles above ground.

Mylar balloons, on the other hand, are made from a metalized nylon. They are not biodegradable and are not used in mass balloon releases. In some states, they have been banned entirely due to the havoc they wreak when caught in overhead electrical wires. The mylar balloon ban has been a controversial topic in California, as covered here on ABC 7 news:

Balloons are the fourth most numerous plastic debris on beaches, according to the US National Parks Service. In most cases, it is very difficult to link animal deaths to balloons. In part, because balloons usually get categorized as plastic in the list of non-food debris items found in the stomachs of dead animals. However, common dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, loggerhead turtle, leatherback turtle, blue shark, and northern fulmar have all been reported with latex balloons. The ingestion of marine debris, and in particular plastics, is a serious issue for marine animals. Some species, such as shearwaters, have even been shown to feed their young plastic, passing it on to the next generation before they even leave the nest.

However, there have been some direct cases of animal deaths due to balloons. In May 2011, a British farmer was compensated after his young bull became grossly entangled in the string of a mylar balloon and died.  Seabirds have also been found entangled in the ribbons of balloons.

For these reasons, there has been significant public pressure to establish laws around mass balloon releases. California, Connecticut, Florida, New York, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia have all established laws, and there are many cities that have established policies about balloon releases also.

In 1990, the Balloon Council was formed by balloon manufacturers and retailers. They have set out some industry guidelines as well as safety tips for the public. The latter includes: use only hand-tied latex balloons with no plastic attachments if the balloon is going to be released, never release mylar balloons, supervise young children with balloons as they are a choking hazard, and properly dispose of balloons by removing any ribbons, and cutting directly above the knot before placing in the trash.

Biodegradable balloons

Biodegradable balloons are made with natural latex and non-toxic dyes. CC image courtesy of Crystal on Flickr.

Biodegradable balloons are an option for celebration, but still should be disposed of wisely. Even though latex balloons did originate from the environment, they still present a risk as they could be ingested by animals and attached ribbons can cause entanglement. Luckily, most events these days look for more creative options for celebration than the mass balloon release.

So, if my son asks me for a balloon again, will my answer be different? Well, if it’s a mylar balloon, definitely not; if it’s a latex biodegradable balloon, possibly. It’s still a single use item after all. However, part of me does want to put it into my compost bin and confirm that it takes 6 months to biodegrade. So maybe just one?!

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