I was asked by Emma Websdale, creator of “Rants for Change”, if I wanted to film a 2 minute rant on a subject I feel passionate about and want to see change in. Now, there is a whole host of areas that I’d like to see change made, so it took me some time to decide which one to focus on. In the end, I went with helium balloon releases. You can watch the video below, however, I have a whole lot more to say on this subject, so do please read on!
Unbelievably, releasing balloons is not currently classed as littering because they’re not being directly dropped on to the ground. That to me, sounds like the most ridiculous piece of legislation, as if whoever passed it forgot that such a thing as gravity exists on our planet and, as the old saying goes, “what goes up must come down”. The Marine Conservation Society is one of the key organisations working hard to get this changed and to ban all intentional releases of balloons and paper lanterns in the UK. Sadly, I think there is a lot of ignorance surrounding this issue, particularly when it comes to the biodegradable aspect.
A quick Google search for biodegradable balloons brings up producers claiming that their latex balloons are 100% natural and will break down within six months or “as fast as an oak leaf in your back yard”. Six months is a long time. It leaves open a huge window of opportunity for wildlife to consume the latex debris. Just because the balloon explodes into tiny particles at a particular altitude does NOT mean they instantly become harmless to animals. Those particles, however small, have to land somewhere and wherever that is, there will be some form of living creature drawn to the colours of the pieces and tricked into consuming them and mistaking them for prey.
It’s a sensitive subject when an occasion such as passing a loved one, is being marked with balloons or paper lanterns. Understandably, families and friends want to do something special and memorable to say goodbye to the deceased but is it really the best way to do this by organising a mass-littering event? When it comes down to it, that’s all a balloon release is. Just because the objects are going up instead of down, it doesn’t change the outcome. As I say in my video, people may as well dump a whole load of plastic on the ground and walk away because that’s where the balloon debris will end up eventually – a tempting, yet deadly meal for some unsuspecting animal. I’m certain no loved one of mine would want to be remembered in this way.
Perhaps grieving communities could be partially forgiven. However, huge corporations can in no way be pardoned. ITV’s popular talent show The X Factor is one such example of a company that should know better. To mark the first episode of this year’s series back in August, the show televised a mass-release of red balloons. I actually haven’t watched the show for a couple of years but I just happened to catch a clip of this balloon release online and thought it was a new thing they did th
is year. After some more searching, I came across another clip posted on YouTube that was filmed at the Birmingham auditions two years ago, suggesting that hundreds of balloons are being let loose by the X Factor team in each of the audition cities every year. That equates to thousands of hundreds of balloons, of litter, being dumped into our environment.
Image: X-Factor balloon release (credit: http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk)
Around 7.6 million people watched the opening episode this year. A huge percentage of viewers are teenagers and young adults who follow along the events of the show eagerly each year. In my mind, the ITV and show’s producers are
extremely irresponsible to give off the impression that releasing balloons is acceptable. They should be showing consideration for the environment and setting an example, not completely disregarding the science that categorically states any form of litter poses an enormous risk to the natural world.
So let’s talk about what those risks actually are. As I mentioned earlier, a latex balloon takes six months to biodegrade. That gives wildlife around 180 days to eat the fragments that drop to the ground allowing plenty of time to cause significant damage. Plastic and latex contain no nutritional value for animals, so the energy and time they waste on consuming the materials is wasted. Some animals don’t even get as far as swallowing the remnants; instead, they get pieces tangled around their mouths and beaks, preventing them from eating anything at all and resulting in them starving to death – a truly horrific way to die.
The ribbons are just as bad as the balloons themselves as these can get wrapped around feet, rendering the animal helpless, and often they struggle so much to get free that the ribbon eventually cuts into their skin, giving them nasty wounds that can lead to limbs becoming partially or wholly detached. The fragments that don’t land on the ground up, instead end up in the ocean where marine wildlife including seals, turtles and seabirds will ingest them. It is estimated that 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs. That kind of statistic is sickening and shows just how much of a negative impact us humans inflict on Wildlife.
Image: A guillemot tangled in balloon litter (Credit: Balloons Blow)
So far, I am grateful that I haven’t come across any injured or dead animals during my beach clean ups. That being said, I’ve picked up countless pieces of balloon and ribbons from Worthing beach and I have wondered what damage the missing pieces have done elsewhere. These occurrences are 100% preventable if the people responsible for organising releases put an end to any future events. There are many other ways to mark special occasions or to show you are thinking of a loved one, without causing any damage to the natural world.
Many councils across the UK have already banned balloon and paper lantern releases on their land, however, there are still many yet to do so. Want to know if your council has been responsible? Use this link to find out if they’ve banned the release of balloons and lanterns. If they haven’t, be productive and get in touch with them, via Twitter, Facebook or email. Show them that you care about this issue and ask them to reconsider their decision. My council isn’t on there, so I intend to get in touch and voice my opinion. I hope you will all join me in doing the same.
Emily Summers is an aspiring Conservationist. Zoology student, nature blogger and volunteer for Marine Conservation Society. You can find her on Twiter at: ArtofNatureBlog