The summer of 2018 has been the season of the plastic straw ban. Over the last few months, cities like Miami Beach and Seattle have restricted single-use plastic straws, companies like Disney and Starbucks have vowed to phase them out, and states like California and Hawaii are considering even wider regulations.
As critics have been quick to point out, these bans won’t put a major dent in the world’s plastic pollution crisis. Though about 7 percent of the plastic items polluting our environment are straws or stirrers, by weight that amounts to less than 1 percent of plastic waste in the oceans. Proponents of bans have also been accused of relying on dubious statistics and ignoring the needs of disabled people who need straws to safely drink fluids. Still, environmentalists, riding a wave of public sympathy following a 2015 viral video of a turtle with a straw stuck up its nose, have painted straw bans as a small, practical step in raising awareness about plastic pollution and advancing broader limits on single-use plastics.
Now, some activists are taking aim at another ubiquitous product they believe takes a serious environmental toll: balloons. A few towns, like Nantucket and Provincetown in Massachusetts, and New Shoreham, Rhode Island, have banned the cheery floating orbs wholesale. A number of states and cities have banned or limited mass balloon drops. Environmental activists argue more regulations should follow. As with the straw debate, any limitations on balloons are sure to be controversial, given the innocuous-seeming joy they bring to children every day. Granted, banning balloons completely might be overkill—but imposing limitations on usage could still go a long way toward raising pollution awareness and protecting the environment.
Not everyone believes balloons are a real environmental concern. The Balloon Council, a New Jersey-based industry group, points out that a very small percentage of balloons actually escape into the atmosphere and wind up as environmental pollutants. The council also argues that properly made latex balloons are biodegradable, and only require between six months and four years to break down harmlessly in nature.
To environmentalists in favor of regulating balloon use, the industry’s positions are naïve at best and cynically selective at worst. Sure, balloons aren’t a major source of environmental pollution, but a still-noteworthy number of balloons drift into waterways. (A Virginia coastal cleanup project found more than 3,000 pieces of balloon litter on ocean beaches over a five-year period.) Once in seawater, some activists argue, latex breaks down more slowly. Some latex balloons are also chemically treated in ways that prevent natural biodegradation, and balloons made of Mylar take substantially longer to biodegrade than the latex variety.
When balloons end up floating in waterways, animals often mistake them for colorful prey, like jellyfish, and eat them, or get tangled in their strings. (While less common, some birds and livestock peck at them as well.) The Balloon Council has argued that there is no proof eating balloons kills animals, noting that animals found dead with balloons in their gullets have also had plastic items in their digestive systems. But a 2015 academic paper presents strong evidence that balloons are among the most dangerous types of pollution for sea life, along with fishing gear and plastic bags, all of which can end up being ingested by, or entangling, aquatic creatures.
And on top of all that, the utility we get out of balloons just isn’t that high. “Balloons are a wasteful single-use product,” says Danielle Vosburgh of the pro-ban organization Balloons Blow, “that quickly ends up in the garbage,” clogging landfills.
Balloons would also be far less problematic to phase out than straws. Though they may seem like a must-have item for birthday parties and parades, in truth they’ve only been fixtures of U.S. celebrations for about a century. No one needs them to live like some disabled individuals need plastic straws. And there are plenty of colorful, airborne, and environmentally friendly alternatives for festivities, like bubbles or even sky lanterns made of degradable paper. “We can easily survive without them,” argues Vosburgh.
The anti-balloon argument doesn’t begin and end with pollution-related issues, either: Mylar balloons, which conduct electricity, have also been implicated in power outages across the U.S. after floating away from oblivious consumers and hitting power lines.
Banning balloons would also have the added benefit of reducing stress on the world’s finite helium reserves, which are needed to operate some medical devices and heavy scientific research equipment. Granted, concerns about the world’s helium supplies running low have been blown out of proportion in recent years. While existing helium stores are perilously low, we are getting better at finding new deposits and researchers say there is enough scattered across the globe to last more than a century. Balloon advocates also argue that the party favors only account for about 5 percent of helium usage overall, and the helium used is not the good stuff medical machines and scientists need. Still, even impure helium has several scientific uses and can be purified or recycled. And cutting even balloons’ relatively modest usage could extend the life of global helium reserves, which could provide a safety cushion as we find ways to decrease our dependence on the gas.
The Balloon Council and even some environmental groups argue that rather than pushing for balloon bans, activists should focus on education campaigns that encourage consumers to responsibly handle and dispose of these decorations. The council is already spearheading efforts in this direction, specifically teaching people (primarily through its website and public statements) to weight balloons, never release them outdoors, and make sure they go in the trash rather than just blow away when broken or deflated. “The cornerstone of sustainability is behavior change, not bans,” says council spokeswoman Lorna O’Hara. “Education can be effective in creating awareness and changing behavior.”
Activists note that behavior change takes time, something the environment may not have. But bans aren’t exactly flawless solutions either. Eliminating balloons would deprive people of something many honestly love, and exacerbate the common belief that environmentalists are invasive killjoys. And “many times people still break laws,” points out Vosburgh. California, for instance, requires weighting on Mylar balloons, but people cut the weights and as a result, Southern California alone still suffers just under 1,000 power outages a year. This is why even Balloons Blow, which supports bans, puts more of its energy into education about proper balloon handling.
There is a middle ground solution of sorts: allowing balloons in general, but banning the practice of filling them with helium. Air-filled balloons may not be as buoyant and fun, but they can still sway in the wind if hung upside down or dropped from the top of a building. Plastic waste expert Ted Siegler says, “when [balloons] just have air in them, while they can still get away from people, they don’t tend to get very far.” In other words, air-filled balloons would be far less likely to end up waterways, where they seem to pose the most substantial environmental threat.
Such a selective ban would have a small but meaningful practical impact on oceans, power lines, and helium supplies. It would not be as dire as a total ban—but still significant enough to raise awareness about human impacts on the environment. And a helium-only ban would accomplish all those things without robbing American consumers of the balloons they love. That could go a long way toward convincing some skeptics that, while protecting the environment requires behavior changes, they don’t have to be drastic and alienating.
Display image by David Kessler via Flickr