The Real Environmental Impact Of Real Balloon Races

Prior to the Millennium, when there was limited scientific understanding of forces affecting our environment, many UK companies offered and managed real latex balloon races. Thanks to research by a relatively few pressure groups, however, we now know that those latex and a new variant, Mylar, balloon races are hugely damaging to our eco-sphere.

B ut despite this significant information, the only real step the balloon race industry has taken is to use bio-degradable rubber, which they would have us believe breaks down in just weeks.

For example, these real latex balloon companies say in their advertising, “the acceptable way to run a balloon race is to only release items that are biodegradable. All of our balloon race kits contain these items. Our balloons are made from latex which is a natural product which will break down at the same rate as an oak leaf….Our balloon race tickets are made of thick paper and DO NOT involve string or the use of plastic valves when attaching to the balloons.”

Unfortunately, what they say is only potentially true – latex balloon fragments may biodegrade at the same speed as an oak leaf, but only when contaminated with soil. The statement is misleading because the full question should be “how long does it take the balloon fragment or oak leaf to fully disintegrate and what happens if it falls on grass pastures, not a ploughed field”.

The answer being: up to 4 years, not six weeks.

H owever, the biodegradability of the balloon or balloon fragments is not the primary issue at all. The real issue is that birds, animals and sea creatures such as turtles try to eat the balloon fragments because they are brightly coloured. The balloons kill them by choking, it’s that simple.

Similarly, those balloons that do not burst i.e. just lose helium but remain intact, also kill when being attempted for eating by birds and animals. When a bird pecks at one of these deflated balloons, the rubber envelops the bird’s beak and asphyxiates it.

The companies are also disingenuous when it comes to how many balloons come back to Earth intact. It’s far more than they would have you believe. They don’t all get to five miles and burst into bits. There is lots of empirical evidence to suggest that most balloons don’t get above 2000 feet altitude because of wind and turbulence. So far more come down semi deflated than actually burst into bits as suggested.

M any environmental pressure groups such as MCS and RSPB have published policy and position guidelines over latex balloons and Chinese lanterns, another litter menace. On the MCS website, they state:

Our opinion

1) Intentional outdoor releases of balloons and sky lanterns are an act of littering and should be classified as such. What goes up must eventually fall back down to earth and/or sea, where it can either entangle wildlife, or be ingested if certain species confuse balloons/balloon fragments for food (such as endangered marine turtles).

2) We are against any forms of litter entering the sea – either directly or indirectly – and, we do not distinguish between differing types of balloon material, the main types of which are latex (rubber) and foil (also known as mylar). Latex balloons, whilst biodegradable, may still persist in the marine environment for up to four years.

Our Actions

In order to make continuous progress towards achieving our asks, in 2012, MCS in conjunction with Keep Wales Tidy (KWT) and Welsh Eco-schools, presented an environmental business case to the Welsh Government to recognise outdoor balloon and sky lantern releases as littering. A petition, urging the Welsh Government to ban all intentional outdoor balloon and lantern releases, resulted in the Welsh Environment Minister asking officials to collect further evidence on this issue and working with England, produced a report to which MCS provided evidence. The report, published in May 2013, highlighted a significant fire hazard posed by sky lanterns; particularly to crops and aviation. It also acknowledged the ongoing risk to coastal rescue services who are falsely alerted to call-outs when lanterns are mistaken for distress flares. The Minister for Natural Resources and Food has subsequently written to all Welsh local authorities encouraging them to bring in a voluntary release ban on council owned land.

MCS will strive to:

1) Make similar asks of the Northern Ireland Executive, Scottish Government and the UK Government.

2) Work with local authorities to bring in release bans on council owned land

3) Work in partnership with other stakeholders who share similar ideals

4) Aid other charities and organisations in coming up with alternative ideas to balloon or sky lantern releases

5) Engage with the public and community groups to raise awareness of the issue and support them in getting balloon and sky lantern releases stopped, using the MCS Don’t Let Go! campaign action pack

Marine Conservation Society Pollution Policy and Position Statement

Version 3: Date of Issue: October 2014