Short summer months are often spent at local parks by my family and I, and while on a recent outting as we soaked up the last rays of sun amid the fragrance of neighborhood barbecues, we witnessed a brilliant display of colors.
But they didn’t belong to the sky -- it was an onslaught of balloons like I’ve never seen.
At first, I wondered what had gone wrong and looked down, expecting to see a child crying after losing her coveted throng of plastic bubbles. That was when I noticed a woman from a nearby birthday party staring wide-eyed up at the sky just as she released another huge bundle into the air, watching them as they floated toward heaven.
Was she dumping her leftover balloons?
Now it takes a lot to motivate me to confront someone. I’m often criticized by my significant other for not being assertive enough in social situations. If a restaurant messes up my order, I’m likely to go with the flow; if someone calls me by another name, I reason it’s close enough.
But there was something about seeing an innumerable amount of shiny plastic orbs rising up to the atmosphere that irked me to my core.
What goes up must come down, I thought as I imagined a wasteland of deserted mountaintops strewn with plastic and devoid of life. I don’t have a moustache and wasn’t created by Dr. Suess but for whatever reason, I felt compelled to be like the Lorax and speak for the trees.
Inspired as much by him as social media activism, I decided to be an upstander and speak out, but at the same, I was also set on being friendly. If I could just reason with the seemingly nice lady...
“Excuse me, what are you doing?” I asked as courteously as possible.
“Oh, we’re releasing balloons in a ceremony,” she answered, squinting as she sized up her next move.
Attempting to be as non-threatening as possible, I quickly worked on establishing an air of nonchalant concern, trying not to come across like a wannabe police officer.
“I don’t want to be annoying or anything, but I couldn’t help but notice your ceremony and I was wondering if anyone knew if they’re bad for nature, like if they can pollute?
“Oh, you mean these balloons?” She asked, following her rhetorical question --which was accompanied by an insincere smile -- by deliberately letting go of 10 balloons right in front of my face. A second woman appeared and asked what was going on, to which woman number one snidely replied, “something about polluting nature or something.”
“This is a memorial for my mom. She passed away,” the second woman explained. She then whispered to the dozen red, gold and pink balloons she was hugging before sending them sky bound. I offered my condolenses as I walked away, hearing the oohs and aahs of other spectators as they marveled at the bright spots till they winked out of existence.
Problem is, I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to them, and more importantly, the creatures who would encounter them later. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the choice of memorial -- just because her loved one died, how many more life forms must suffer?
But it wasn’t until I got home and googled it that I discovered a sickening reality. From large scale events hosted by schools and businesses to private home gatherings, people are letting balloons fall into the sky. And whether released in small amounts or en masse, nature is at risk from the aerial assault.
According to a balloon pollution fact sheet released by the Marine Conservation Society in 2006, about 90 to 95 percent of renegade balloons burst after reaching altitudes of up to 5 miles, releasing tiny pieces of plastic into the hands of gravity. The rest travel onward until they eventually deflate enough to fall back to Earth or sea.
Once they do, local widlife are at risk of the possibly lethal mistake of confusing them for food, causing the plastic to lodge in their digestive systems, which slowly starves them to death. Animals can also become entangled in the balloon ribbon, which is believed to be the cause of death for creatures as sizable as seals.
For these reasons, preventing balloons from becoming airborne was listed as one of 10 ways to heal the bay on Heal the Bay’s web site.
In the San Gabriel Mountains, however, the populations of large land creatures are increasingly being affected by released balloons. The fate of the majestic bighorn sheep is especially entangled with the popular party supply, as noted in a 2010 article in Outdoor California Magazine by Rebecca Barboza.
Like cows, bighorn sheep have four-chambered stomachs they rely on to digest their food, which they do not thoroughly chew. Because of this, the protected animal is particulary susceptible to the impact of latex-based balloons.
In the article, Tim Glenner of the Department of Fish and Game’s Inland Desert Region described an alarming amount of balloons, found both on the land and in the stomachs of deceased animals.
“During one three-day survey we counted 76 balloons in the San Gabriel Mountains,” Glenner said in the article. “I’ve had an aerial view of every bighorn sheep range in California and the balloon problem seems to be increasing in the southern mountain ranges.”
What is a wondrous display of color and beauty to some is a horrifying manifestation of carelessness to others like me, who enjoy the sight of scenery unmmarred by harmful human products. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean people should do it.
Looking into the legality of the practice, I learned that in California it’s punishable by a $100 fine and that multiple offenses can garner a misdemeanor. However, the damage done to unsuspecting animals remains incalcuable. But there are steps people can take to minimize the damage and I've listed some based on suggestions by Rebecca Barboza:
- Fill balloons with air instead of helium
- Secure balloons by tying them down to solid objects
- Use natural cotton strings to tie balloons with; they’re biodegradable
- Dispose of balloons after an event by holding a balloon-popping contest
- Dispose of balloons found in nature
- Speak out about the dangerous effects on wildlife
Otherwise, numerous environmentally-friendly alternatives are offered on balloonsblow.org, such as using floating flowers, pinwheels, ribbon-dancers or even drumming to create a memorable experience.
Better yet, they suggest planting trees, because while the mesmerzing spectacle of a red balloon shrinking into the great blue is momentary one, the fruits of a planted tree can be enjoyed for generations to come.