Where do all the balloons (and sky lanterns) go?

*warning: some readers might find some of the images in this article disturbing*
(Main picture by Robert Perry, CondorExpressPhotos.Com)

Ever wonder what happens to all those helium balloons we accidentally or cutely release to the skies on special occasions (birthdays, weddings, celebrations, etc.)? No, they do not fly all the way to the moon, nor are they lost colourful bubbles flying amidst stars. I’ll give you a hint: law of gravity. Yup, what goes up, must come down.

Balloons are just pretty trash 

It’s slightly more complex than ‘going up and coming down’, something to do with gas, and mass, and blah blah blah, but basically what happens is that the balloon starts leaking the air/helium, and the ‘wrapping’ (the balloon itself) drops all the way down, back to earth, as trash.

Unfortunately, balloons aren’t ‘environmentally designed’ just yet, so on their descendant they don’t aim at trash cans or recycle bins. The horror, the shock, how dare they? I know!
Instead they fall on the floor, at the beach, on the street, on gutters, in the woods, where an innocent bird might mistake it for food and choke on it, in the sea, where an innocent turtle or even a dolphin might mistake it for food an choke on it, on a green field, where a horse might choke on it…

Basically they fill our gorgeous planet with garbage (garbage that takes anywhere from 6 months to FOUR years to completely decompose) and they KILL WILDLIFE. (And if you’re thinking, nuh-uh, I live in a city no wildlife, a)there’s always wildlife, b)balloons can travel for thousands of miles and c)trash is ugly).

Last Sunday, I was at the beach and the strong currents and choppy sea brought with it hundreds of fallen balloons. In a matter of seconds the beach was filled with garbage. I asked at a beach bar if they could lend me a big empty trash bag and picked up as much as I could. I am not lying when I say that 70% of the trash I picked up from the beach were balloons.

Sure the beach looked better afterwards, and maybe I even prevented a bird from choking on one of those balloons I picked up… But the problem is much bigger than one girl and one garbage bag. And it will persist unless we let people know just how dangerous it can be. Here are just a few pictures of balloons’ devastating effects on wildlife.

Oh no, sky lanterns too? (Yup…)

Now, this will make you really sad, but unfortunately the same goes for the beautiful sky lanterns. Yup, they too go up in all magic and light but fall back down as ugly and dangerous trash. Even though some lanterns are now marked as ‘environmentally friendly’, you should be very careful, because it might be that they’re using biodegradable paper (I still bet most of the time it isn’t), but what about the lantern’s structure and hoop? Is it metal? Can a sea or forest animal get stuck on it and eventually die? Or is it wood/bamboo that can easily blend with nature and still, would it be potentially harmful? Most importantly – will there be danger of starting a wildfire?
Yes, because adding to all of the dangers of balloons, sky lanterns can cause devastating fires that can kill wildlife and also affect humans.

So yeah, basically releasing balloons and sky lanterns is no better than throwing trash into the street, into our parks, our oceans and our forests. It’s polluting. It’s polluting only it’s disguised in a very fancy outfit.


Thailand sky lanterns – source 

Owl-lantern-sky-chinese-new-year-festivallanters after

We ‘see the attraction, not the danger’

I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty or anything, I swear. I know that most of us do it because we’re actually unaware of the dangers it involves. We are like those birds who steal shiny stuff: they don’t really know they’re doing something bad, they just LOVE the shiny stuff.  I mean, unicorns know I do! I’d be lying if I’d say the first time I looked at a lantern festival photograph I didn’t find it unbelievably beautiful.
While researching for this post, I read an article on The Guardian where they interviewed a wedding venue owner who banned sky lanterns and balloon releases at his venue and he put it best: “these lanterns are advertised very heavily in bridal magazines. Brides and grooms can see the attraction, but not the danger …”. And he is so spot on. It’s true. We’re wired to see the shiny pretty stuff, and we don’t really think about the rest. Not until we LEARN what follows, that is.
Basically what I am trying to say is, don’t feel guilty if you’ve done it before (released a balloon or lantern) and never really thought of its consequences; that you never realised you were actually polluting, that it could harm animals, nature, people… it’s OK. It’s natural that you didn’t and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. (OK, you’ll probably feel a bit guilty about it now, it is only human, BUT don’t beat yourself up too much).

The important thing is, now you know. So what will you do about it?

Now, if you’re anything like me you’re probably thinking of going extreme and ban all balloons and lanterns from your life, get proper angry, rally… but hey, there’s no need for that, I swear! You can still have balloons at parties (if you must), you can still have pretty decorations and shiny stuff… You are still allowed to like the pretty shiny stuff. I promise. I am not telling you things will be like before. They’ll never be the same again (hopefully you won’t ever launch a balloon or lantern willingly), BUT there are other ways.

Here’s a little Q&A I prepared for you, ‘cause I am sweet like that:

Q1: Does this mean I can’t throw parties with balloons no more?
Not at all. I understand that for some that may be too big a change in their lives. After all, celebrations are made of balloons! So if you’re planning to get that 3 and that 0 or that 5 and that 0 to celebrate a big birthday, or want fill your house with balloons for your kid’s birthday, by all means, do. Just make sure to pop those balloons and put them in the recycle bins once you’re done. (Hey, it can even become a fun after-party activity for the kids! “Fastest one to pop all the balloons wins!”).

*note: now, as Greenpeace puts it, I am not trying to be the ‘fun police’ but if you can, I’d say do ban all the balloons. They’re not that environmentally friendly after all. But hey, I am no extremist, I understand if you still need them in your life. Who knows, maybe I’ll need balloons back in my life one day.

Q2: Does this mean you should get angry at kids for accidentally letting their balloons go?
GOSH of course NOT! But you definitely shouldn’t encourage it.

Q3: My friend told me he/she is planning to launch balloons or sky-lanterns at his/her wedding. Should I say something?
YES. Defo. Be kind, be gentle, you don’t want to burst their balloon, just inform him/her of the potential hazards, in a kind way, and maybe be prepared to offer some alternatives, like bubbles or something. Here are some examples:

  • A wrong way to tell him/her: “OMG YOU WANT TO KILL ALL THE ANIMALS???”
  • A passive-aggressive way to tell him/her: “you know I read in this article the other day that unfortunately lanterns and balloons are super dangerous to the environment, I know, I was shocked to the core too, so sad. Can you imagine, it could be my dog [insert pet name] or your cat [insert pet name] choking on the bloody thing and dying a horrible death, nasty huh?”
  • A good way to tell him/her: “you know I read in this article the other day that unfortunately lanterns and balloons are super dangerous to the environment. I know, it looks really pretty and it is lovely, but the aftermath? Not so pretty. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this? We could think of something else to do, like sparklers or blowing bubbles?”

Q4: OK, I want to try and use less balloons and evil stuff. Could you give me some balloon alternatives?
YES! Gladly, creative minds are already on top of this situation and I found loads of cool ideas online. Here are my favourites: bunting, tissue paper pompoms, blowing bubbles and/or making giant bubbles, and plant a tree (although I can see this would be tricky at a wedding). Here are some of the links I found that will give you loads of ideas:

Also look at these stunning balloon-free party decorations. I mean WOW. I am not gifted at arts and crafts so my party would look way sadder than this, but hey, the fun bit is in doing it right?

Oh and here’s 10 balloon and sky lantern alternatives shared by Save Philipines Sea.

balloon alternatives
Source: Save Philippines Sea

You’re welcome.

FINALLY: What’s being done and what CAN I DO about it?

In some places mass balloon releases and sky lanterns are now actually illegal (Austria, Germany, Malta, some states in the US) and some countries are introducing bans (including Australia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia), but unfortunately most people still don’t know about the dangers of balloons and sky lanterns, and that’s the main problem. It looks pretty and innocent, hey, I should know, I LOVE pretty shiny stuff, and as I said we’re just not wired to think about what happens afterwards, we’re not. But, once we KNOW about it, then we can’t unknow it, and most of us will want to make it better*. (Sure there will be the eventual d*ck-head who, even knowing it’s harmful, will still want to do it, but I do believe that if most people knew they wouldn’t – I mean, who wants to kill sea turtles, dolphins, horses or cute baby goats, and also who doesn’t want a nice clean planet to live on??)

*Here’s a useful trick I use now: whenever I do witness a balloon or lantern release, if EVER I find myself thinking ‘oh that’s pretty’, I immediately think of a turtle choking on it. It’s horrible but very effective. (I am no psychologist but maybe try a different technique for kids under the age of 12).

So, will you help me raise awareness? How? Easy:

Here are five steps you can take to help:

  1. Tell your friends – if a friend is hosting a party/celebration and mentioned balloons/lanterns release to you, make them aware of the risks, so that they can make an informed decision
  2. Share share share – share information about this. You can share this post or any others you can find online that you find useful. Here are a few great links to share: from newspapers (such as this one in The Guardian or this one in the Independent), Greenpeace , Marine Conservation Society, Environmental Nature Center, World Animal Foundation, Balloons Blow -don’t let them go org, the RSPCA ( Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)…
  3. Campaign – support the Marine Conservation Society’s campaign by sharing #dontletgo and if you’re in the UK, take the pledge.
  4. A picture is worth a thousand words – if you see a picture of an animal that’s been endangered or even killed by this, share it. I know it’s not nice, nor pretty, but it will help more people understand just how dangerous it is.
  5. And finally PICK IT UP when you see it – i’s not difficult. You’re walking on the beach, you see a plastic bottle, a torn lantern or balloon, a plastic bag, anything… pick it up, throw it away when you leave. I promise, it’s not hard and you’ll feel like a superhero (heck if you do it, you are MY superhero). (Oh and as for the ‘it’s not my job’ excuse, newsflash: it’s everyone’s job to ensure we HAVE a planet left).

And here’s an extra challenge for you: take a lesson from the balloons and lanterns (I know I have) and try to think of other things you may be doing, unaware of its harmful consequences. Are you purchasing products that help or damage our planet? Where do things go, once you’re done with them? What’s your impact on the world – socially, economically and environmentally? As my bestie, Sir David Attenborough, put it when asked how people can make a difference:

“Think of the consequences of what they do. Of what they throw away. What they eat and how they organize their lives. And in the end, who they vote for”.

Speaking of, here he is, saying pretty much all of what I just said in a 2min video.

Now go save the planet!

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