Bringing airborne plastic pollution down to earth

What goes up, must eventually come down again, and so it is with helium balloons, a pernicious form of pollution that rarely receives the critical attention it warrants. One happy side-effect of writing the below piece for the Irish Examiner was that it may have helped persuade my teenager’s school to forego a planned balloon release to ‘celebrate’ the end of term for sixth year students.

IT WAS A bright, chilly morning as I emerged from a ceremony at the crematorium at Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery. In the distance, dozens of balloons drifted overhead, having just been released by another funeral party to honour their deceased relative.

It’s a nice idea. As one Dublin-based balloon company describes it: “balloon releases at funerals are becoming more popular as a visual expression of love. This growing trend seems like the appropriate metaphor for a loved one’s spirit as it ascends through the air”. A number of Irish funeral directors list balloon releases among the services they provide.

What goes up, however, must also come down again. According to the Ocean Conservancy charity, balloons are now the third most harmful form of marine debris, behind discarded fishing gear and plastic bags.

A key finding in a 2017 report from the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was the “lack of knowledge” many people do not understand that no balloon is “environmentally friendly” and that every released balloon becomes litter and can be harmful.

The report added that terms like “biodegradable” were understood by the public to mean that such balloons were not an environmental hazard, but this is absolutely not the case. Once released, helium-filled balloons can travel huge distances. A balloon released in Nagano, Japan crossed the Pacific Ocean and 49 hours later landed in Los Angeles, more than 8,500 kilometres away.

When they land at sea, balloons are a major choking hazard for turtles (who mistake them for jellyfish), sea birds, whales, dolphins, and a host of other marine animals. Apart from the dangers of ingesting them, animals risk being entangled in the attached strings.

While so-called biodegradable balloons are made of latex, they can take between six months and four years to fully decompose, meaning they are an environmental hazard for a long time after their release. Other balloons made from mylar or vinyl are not in any way biodegradable and are simply plastic waste.

A number of US states have already brought in bans on balloon releases, as has Australia and dozens of local authorities in Britain, including four in Northern Ireland. Ironically, here in Ireland if you fly-tipped a pile of balloons you could face prosecution for littering, but if you inflated the same balloons and released them into the air, there is no sanction for this form of littering.

Environmental NGOs here, including the Irish Wildlife Trust, Birdwatch Ireland, and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group all support an outright ban on balloon releases, as their members see first-hand the dire consequences for wildlife of an activity that many people mistakenly believe is completely harmless.

The only regulation that appears to exist in Ireland relating to balloon releases is from the Irish Aviation Authority, which states that you cannot release more than 1,000 balloons “within the aerodrome traffic zone of an aerodrome”, while releases exceeding 2,000 require written permission from the IAA. In other words, we regulate these hazards when they impact humans, but not when they threaten the wider environment.

Last July, while walking through a field in rural Kilkenny, I encountered a deflated foil balloon and posted a photo of it on Twitter. A number of farmers replied saying these are a common sight in rural Ireland, with reports of instances of livestock as well as wildlife being affected. Cattle, for instance, are naturally curious and have been known to choke on swallowed balloons, which can lodge in the throat or even lungs.

A Department of Environment, Climate and Communications spokesperson confirmed that EU regulations relating to balloons were signed into Irish law last November as part of the EU’s 2021 Directive aimed at curbing the use of single-use plastics. Items covered in the directive account for around 70% of all marine litter in the EU.

From 2025, balloon producers will be charged a fee to fund awareness-raising measures to encourage responsible use, as well as to help pay for cleaning up of litter waste. While these new regulations may put an extra few cent onto the cost of balloons, they in no way limit the ongoing environmental hazards posed by the release of helium-filled balloons.

Globally, there is a chronic shortage of helium gas that threatens far more than balloons. Liquid helium, a non-renewable element, is a vital cooling component without which medical MRI scanners could not operate. Four of the five main helium suppliers in the US are now rationing it to healthcare customers, partly due to cuts in Russian helium exports since its invasion of Ukraine last year.

Let’s be honest: there are lots of far less damaging ways to mark a special moment “whether it’s a birthday, a graduation or commemorating a loved one” than releasing toxic balloon litter into the wild.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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