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A salutary lesson in the perils of inflation

 
 

This page contains 10 reader comments. Click here to view (latest Thu 12/05/11 21:13).

The other day, an MP, some councillors (including His Worship the Mayor), a handful of teachers and a vicar — all supposedly upright and respectable members of society — took a large carrier bag full of bits of litter and scattered then on a nature reserve.

Since the Environmental Protection Act 1990 unequivocally makes it is an offence to drop 'or otherwise deposit' litter in a public place, you might think they would have been arrested for committing such a foolhardy, anti-social act, then berated in the press, and hounded out of office. Or dragged to court and served with an "ASBO". Or at least received an "on the spot fine", or fixed penalty. But no: several of the policemen present were observed laughing and smiling. In fact, the most senior officer even joined in!

To tell the truth, they didn't actually scatter the litter directly on to the nature reserve. First they filled some of the pieces with helium (they were, of course, balloons) and tied other pieces of litter, plastic ribbon, to them. Then they let them go, and away they floated.


(Photo: joka2000)

As you no doubt already know, what goes up must come down, and sure enough, down came each of those balloons.

Many shattered into tiny fragments, after freezing at altitudes as high as ten kilometres. They fell like rain onto the nature reserve. And, from such height, onto a vast area, including farm fields, and into the sea. Perhaps even onto your garden, or your local patch.

But some of the balloons landed intact. New Scientist magazine report that between 5 and 10% of balloons that are released do not burst, but land whole, though partially deflated. In the USA, over 32,000 intact balloons were picked up on beaches during one year by one conservation organisation alone.

What do you think happened, when those pieces of litter and semi-inflated balloons were eaten by wildlife, farm animals or pets? To a bird or other animal at sea, a piece of floating balloon will look just like the jellyfish they usually eat. Evidence has already been found of birds, dolphins, fish, Loggerhead Sea Turtles Caretta caretta, Leatherback Turtles Dermochelys coriacea, and Blue Sharks Prionace glauca suffering or dying, their stomachs blocked as a result of eating latex balloons. In 1985, an infant Sperm Whale Physeter macrocephalus was found dead of starvation after swallowing an inflated biaxially oriented polyethylene terephthalate (boPET) polyester film balloon (the shiny, metallic-looking balloons sold under the brand name "Mylar", or similar) which had lodged in its intestines. A juvenile Green Turtle Chelonia mydas washed up at Knott End-on-Sea beach near Blackpool starved to death in December 2001, after a balloon blocked its gut. If strings are tied to balloons, birds and other animals may become tangled in them, leading to suffocation, starvation or drowning. There have even been cases of chicks becoming so entangled, after their parents have used plastic ribbons to build their nests. In Devon, farmers report having to call out vets to cows with balloons lodged in their throats.


Razorbill (Photo: Christine McGuinness)

Because balloon litter poses a threat to wildlife and domestic animals — and is very unsightly, too — the Ross-on-Wye–based Marine Conservation Society are campaigning to stop balloon releases, both by persuasion in the short term and, eventually, through prohibitive legislation. They are supported in that campaign by a large number of reputable organisations, including the RSPB, the RSPCA, the National Farmers' Union, the Tidy Britain Group, Keep Scotland Beautiful, county bird clubs, various Wildlife Trusts and other organisations. Overseas organisations opposed to balloon releases are as diverse as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Clean Virginia Waterways and the Sea Turtle Survival League.

At the International Marine Debris Conference on Derelict Fishing Gear and the Ocean Environment in Honolulu, Hawaii in August 2000, Anthony L. Andrady, Program Manager and Senior Research Scientist, Chemistry and Life Sciences Division, Research Triangle Institute, North Carolina, reported his findings that:

"Promotional releases of balloons that descend into the sea pose a serious ingestion and/or entanglement hazard to marine animals."

In August 2007, Plymouth City Council joined a growing number of local authorities who have chosen to ban mass balloon releases from council owned land. These include South Hams District Council, Oxfordshire County Council and Shetland Islands Council. Similar bans are now in place in Canada and several American states and cities. A Plymouth City Council spokesman said:

"We're not out to spoil anyone's fun and we're not against the sale or use of balloons for celebrating special events as long as they're disposed of properly afterwards. But releasing them into the air is what causes the problem and as a responsible Council it's our duty to raise awareness of the risk to wildlife and to do all we can to minimise that risk. Balloons released in Plymouth get caught on the prevailing winds and are carried straight onto Dartmoor, into the countryside of the South Hams and into coastal waters. The threat they pose is simply unacceptable."

A month previously, Prestonpans Infant and Nursery School in East Lothian became the first school known to have banned balloon releases, earning support from their local council's biodiversity officer, their MP, their MEP and, most importantly, the local community.

The people who manufacture and sell balloons are quick to defend the practice of releasing them, but to paraphrase the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davis, "Well, they would, wouldn't they?" They argue that latex balloons are biodegradable — which, to be fair, they are; but a latex balloon on land can take up to six months to break down. In other words, they linger as long as an oak leaf. But worse than that, in salt water, such as at sea, they break down much more slowly, retaining their elasticity for twelve months or more. And while a balloon may degrade over many months, it's hardly a safe thing in the meantime. You wouldn't be so reckless as to give one to a baby to play with, for fear of choking, so why would you allow an animal to eat one?


Washed-up balloons on a beach (Photo: Kevin Redgrave)

In the United Kingdom, the National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers, "the only independent national trade association for balloon decorators, retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers and suppliers of balloon-related services", has a code of conduct for balloon releases, aimed at minimising their environmental impact, but even they concede:

"Problems can arise when a balloon is not inflated properly or fully or is carrying too much weight and therefore does not reach the height at which shattering occurs. This situation causes a potential danger to wildlife and the environment."

and that:

"problems may occur if a partially inflated balloon is ingested, causing possible blockage of the alimentary tract."

What can you do to help?

Sign the MCS petition to have balloon releases made illegal, and consider joining the MCS.

If you are a member of a county (or similar) bird club, ask them to agree a policy of not releasing balloons, and opposing balloon releases in general — if necessary, propose a motion to that effect at their Annual General Meeting (AGM). If you have children at school, let their teachers know that you will oppose balloon releases, and suggest safer alternatives. Write to your local councillors, asking them to agree not to participate in balloon releases, and to prohibit them at council events and at other events held on council land. Write to your MP, asking them not to attend balloon releases, and to support any future legislation restricting or prohibiting them. Please mention the Marine Conservation Society campaign when you do so.

If you see a balloon release mentioned in your local news media, write to the newspaper or radio or television station concerned, and to the organiser, expressing your opposition and explaining the potential for harm to wild and domestic animals. If the release is a future one, ask the organisers to do something different instead. Mindful that balloon releases are sometimes used to raise funds for good causes, the MCS propose several, more environmentally friendly, alternatives, including sponsored balloon-popping and "guess the number of balloons in the car" competitions, after which all the balloons can be safely gathered up and disposed of properly.

If you do oppose any recent or planned balloon releases, please notify the MCS, so that they might do likewise.

Andy Mabbett is a trustee of the West Midland Bird Club, an RSPB volunteer and member of the MCS, but writes here in a personal capacity.

The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (10)

#1
certainly food for thought there, thanks Andy.
   Des McKenzie, 14/11/08 15:08Report inappropriate post Report 
#2
Great article. I sometimes skywatch for visible migration across central London and it is depressing to see the endless parade of balloons across the sky. Most people just don't realise that its a problem. Keep up the good work.
   Rod Standing, 14/11/08 19:54Report inappropriate post Report 
#3
Good article, it's about time people were made to realise the impact on the environment of so called fun. I walk regulary on the hills and have noticed the balloon problem getting much worse these last 5 years or so. What about fireworks I wonder? What impact do they have on town roosting birds?
   Robert Parkin, 18/11/08 12:50Report inappropriate post Report 
#4
All interesting comments. I'm well placed to comment as an active birder and former ballon seller (yes, it's true). These releases are very common and most of the larger ballon retailers provide the netting and ribboned valves, which you can see on the unfortunate auk, to accommodate such large scale releases. There is a point where, legally, you have to have permission from the Civil Aviation Authority to release these, although I suspect this is 1000's rather than 100's. There is no doubt on the impact of these releases and they need to be stopped. They are a fabulous sight but so are flocks of Razorbill............
   Russ Malin, 18/11/08 15:00Report inappropriate post Report 
#5
Great article. Takes me back to news footage of the Albatross chicks with plastic fruit bags etc stuck in their throats. I heard Fireworks/bonfire night mentioned. In this day and age of having Carbon footprints and us all paying heavily for it, why is it OK to release whatever emissions we like over roughly a three week period, let alone New Year. Is it just me or is there always an acrid fog lingering on the windless mornings of the 6th November?
   Concerned., 20/11/08 21:44Report inappropriate post Report 
#6
a balloon release was held locally at belfast castle by parents in memory of lost babies...indeed a very sad thing. i had felt like complaining about it, but no doubt it would have changed anything and i would have been labelled a miserable kill-joy. Surely something like a memorial garden, planting young trees etc would much better serve the memories of these lost children, something for the parents to visit....these kind of alternatives should be considered before littering the skies and seas
   andrea marshall, 21/11/08 08:22Report inappropriate post Report 
#7
I live a few feet from the Chesil Beach in Dorset and try to keep my patch free of all litter. Both inflated & deflated balloons are frequent with sometimes two or three tied together. Most are from the SW of England but a few are from France and even one from Belgium. Besides mass releases, many of them originate from celebrations, be it parties, weddings or retail promotions. If these sources were banned. leaving only charity events, at least this would reduce pollution + hopefully charities could think of a better alternative.
   cliff rogers, 21/11/08 16:21Report inappropriate post Report 
#8
Balloon was flown in 1993 with a letter, I saw on TV the news that was attached to the flounder. Definite, "said balloon to degradation from natural ingredients," Had written a balloon-related sites, I feel that 10 years ago, I saw everywhere, That was a lie What? balloons that have left more than a 10 years ago, Difficult to decompose in the balloon is .... Fish and birds feed on the balloon and wrong, they could eat and the animals I think that will be called Given the environmental problems also thought you might want to fly a balloon. I skip the balloon I knew I should not. Or dissolved in water and is something I'd better jump to that. Fortunately, balloons and pigeons were blown off by Japan's Nagano Olympic Games, three balloons are soluble in water and development company. But the yen has been exported from Japan wanting to get better.
   Kia Asbel, 19/03/10 09:25Report inappropriate post Report 
#9
In 1996, the ribbon, balloons were blown off in a TV series ”Propose of a summer" with them and balloon art. Balloon is better for the environment, but is said came like a kid thing, it is the ego of the company.
   Kia Asbel, 19/03/10 09:30Report inappropriate post Report 
#10
"Children at Lyndhurst Primary School in Camberwell, south-east London cheered as they sent hundreds of balloons soaring into the sky to support charity Comic Relief. But when one of their red, helium-filled balloons fell to earth over 50 miles away in Kent, a 13-month-old bullock choked to death on its string. Farmer Richard Vant, 50, found the balloon, with string and a school label attached to it, sticking out of the dead animal’s mouth [...] Parents had been reassured by the primary school in a newsletter ahead of the event that the balloons would "biodegrade at the same rate as an oak leaf"." - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/agriculture/farming/8494881/Farmer-wins-compensation-after-Red-Nose-Day-balloon-kills-cow.html
   Andy Mabbett, 12/05/11 21:13Report inappropriate post Report 

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