The environment is a serious issue, but being eco-conscious shouldn’t mean that you can’t have fun! Balloons are a case in point. They are pure decoration, only last for a day or two, and easily blow away, creating litter in the environment. But it’s hard to imagine a birthday party, wedding or other special event without some kind of colorful decoration.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a party pooper to reduce your impact on the environment, as there are plenty of options to provide an eco alternative to balloons.
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Balloons and the environment
Balloons are made from either latex (a type of rubber), mylar (a type of nylon), or aluminum foil. Though latex and rubber are natural materials, and will degrade naturally, it can take many years for them to break down. Plastic, on the other hand, never really degrades.
Latex balloons are made by dipping molds first into vats of a coagulant solution (water, salt, soap, and talc mixture), then into vats of coloured, liquid latex. The lips are made with rollers, and then the formed balloons are dipped into water to remove excess coagulant and dried or cured. Mylar balloons are made by sticking together two sheets of polyester.
Although the production of balloons is fairly benign, it is the disposal of balloons where the most environmental harm is caused. Many balloons don’t make it into a proper waste stream, either because of intentional or accidental releases. In the natural environment, birds become entangled in their strings, and they block the digestive tract of marine animals after they mistake the bright colors for food.
In fact, studies have suggested that turtles will selectively eat balloons, because of their close resemblance to jellyfish, one of their primary food sources. Turtles are visual feeders and find it difficult to discriminate between marine debris and food.
The other environmental issue that balloons present is when they are filled with helium. Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, but on earth, it’s becoming harder and harder to come by.
Helium reserves under the earth’s surface are made when uranium rock decays, and their discovery and extraction is usually a by-product of natural gas mining. The amount of helium used in party balloons is around 10% of total global use, significant when you consider its requirement for arguably more important things like MRI scanners.
Are balloons recyclable?
Latex is a natural product that comes from the sap of rubber trees. However, it is very tough and does not compost readily, even under commercial conditions. The latex in balloons also has preservatives, plasticizers (to make them more elastic) and dyes added, which affects their breakdown.
In some areas, there are schemes to recycle Mylar balloons . However, this is the same as most soft plastic recycling processes where they are melted down for use as an outdoor composite plastic. They cannot be remade into the same type of material, so foil balloons always need to be made from virgin material.
Are there biodegradable balloons?
Biodegradable balloons are not environmentally friendly balloon alternatives. The term ‘biodegradable’ just means that a product will break down into its base components through biological processes, but there is no defined timeframe. This means that even plastics that can take hundreds of years to degrade can be labeled as biodegradable.
Biodegradable plastic can be even worse for the environment than regular plastic, as it creates smaller pieces that can be easily digested by animals. When they break down even further, they release microplastics, the effects of which are only just beginning to be studied.
Some companies have used the term ‘biodegradable’ as part of greenwashing marketing, to make a product seem eco-friendly, when it is anything but. Even though the use of terminology is regulated, the definition does not have anything to do with having a lower environmental impact.
Instead, look for products that are labeled as ‘compostable’, which means that materials will be able to break down in a home or industrial compost bin, in around the same timeframe as other compostable materials.
Eco-Friendly Balloon Alternatives
The unique material properties that allow balloons to be filled with air mean that there is not really a direct, like-for-like, environmentally friendly alternative to balloons. The litter and contamination problems caused by balloons come from their inherent lightweight and fragile design, so in reality, the only option is to find a completely different product to help celebrate your event. Here are some eco-friendly ideas!
A sustainable alternative to balloons for decoration is paper chains. Make a room bright and festive by making long chains, and hanging them in garlands. They are simple to make, and you can quickly create decorations that will fill an entire space. Because the process is so straightforward, you can even rope in the entire family and get kids to contribute to the decorating process.
Paper is recyclable and compostable, so you can dispose of paper chains in an environmentally harmless way when you are finished. You can make even more eco-friendly paper chains by re-using paper you already have, or creating your chains from recycled paper.
Where to buy eco paper chains:
BUNTING AND GARLANDS
Another alternative room decoration to balloons, is to make bunting or garlands. For something that will be long-lasting but takes a bit more time, sew cloth shapes across a piece of ribbon or string. Use recycled material, or buy organic cotton off-cuts that can be composted when you are done, to make your bunting even more environmentally friendly.
A quicker option is to sew circles of fairly thick paper together, by running a stitch through them on a sewing machine. Choose a cotton thread for an entirely compostable product.
Where to buy eco-friendly bunting:
If you are trying to create a ‘surprise’ moment, confetti might be a good alternative to balloons. Confetti is traditionally used when a just-married couple leaves the church, and it can make for some amazing photos.
Just be sure to find biodegradable, non-plastic confetti, preferably made from natural materials. Some companies make confetti from petals and leaves, and if you don’t need loads, you could try making your own with a hole punch and some garden clippings!
Also, be mindful of where you choose to throw confetti. Even if it is made from paper or natural materials, excess debris in urban water systems can block up pipes and drains, and cause algal blooms.
Where to buy eco confetti:
An even lower waste option to confetti for creating that ‘celebratory air’ is to blow bubbles. You make your own mixture from eco-friendly washing-up liquid, glycerin, and water and get kids to make their own wands from recycled pipe cleaners.
Alternatively, you could buy premade eco bubble solution, or buy/hire a bubble-blowing machine for a bigger impact.
Where to buy eco-friendly bubble mixture:
Kids love playing with balloons at parties, but as an alternative toy, you could get them to make their own pinwheels. You can use printed or plain colored paper, recycled magazine pages, newspapers, or turn it into a longer activity by getting them to decorate plain paper.
Then use pencils or chopsticks for the handle and you’ve got a fun eco alternative to balloons.
Where to buy paper pinwheels
Another alternative party activity to running around trying to pop each other’s balloons, is to make your own kites. You can buy kite kits, or create your own by sticking together bamboo chopsticks into a cross shape, and laying paper over one side.
If you have a nearby hill or windy area, this is the perfect accompaniment for an outdoor, picnic-style party and will keep kids entertained for hours.
Where to buy eco-friendly kites:
FLYING WISH PAPER
Balloon releases have been used to symbolize ‘letting go’ of a loved one that has passed away, but their devastating impact on the natural environment means that people are looking for eco friendly balloon release alternatives.
Whatever you do, do not try sky lanterns as an alternative. Even sky lanterns that are made from paper and bamboo create just as much of a hazard to animals as balloons, and can cause serious damage if the lit candle starts a fire. For these reasons, they are banned in a number of countries.
A nice alternative is ‘flying wish paper’. This is a very thin paper, which you can write a wish or message onto, before rolling it up and setting the top alight. The heat makes it fly up into the air, creating a spectacle, but it only stays lit for about five seconds, making it much safer. The only thing that is left over is ash, so no need to worry about littering the environment.
Where to buy flying wish paper:
ECO-FRIENDLY WATER BALLOONS
Instead of buying water balloons this summer, why not try reusable crochet balloons as environmentally friendly water balloons. If you are crafty, you can make your own, or buy them ready made. They work by using a synthetic, bulky wool that swells heavily in water and creates a rough seal. When they are thrown, the force of the impact releases some of the water.
Because crochet balloons don’t burst on impact, they don’t create as big of a splash as rubber water balloons, but you can generally throw the same one a couple of times before needing to refill.
Where to buy eco-friendly water balloons:
BALLOON ALTERNATIVES FOR GENDER REVEALS
Balloon releases used to be a popular way of revealing the gender of unborn babies, but nowadays social media is full of creative, alternate ways to do a gender reveal.
You could bake a pink or blue coloured cake to cut into, use coloured eco confetti, buy chocolate bars with blue or pink fillings, hire a sky writer… there are literally hundreds of options to create that surprise moment without creating an environmental mess. Just spend a couple of minutes on YouTube for some inspiration!
For a celebration that goes into the night, you could use fireworks to create a special moment. Although fireworks will always produce emissions, eco-friendly fireworks are available that produce about half the amount of particulate matter as traditional fireworks. They use a cleaner-burning fuel which creates less smoke and contaminants and means that fewer metal salts are needed to create their colors.
Just remember to still use them responsibly, away from people and animals, and clean up any leftover debris once you’re done.
Although they are typically made of plastic, water pistols are a reusable alternative to balloons for water fights. They typically last years if they are stored out of the sun, and you could buy them second-hand and pass them onto some other kids, once they’ve been outgrown.
No matter if they are made from latex or foil, labeled as biodegradable or eco-friendly, balloons are just not good for the environment. Fortunately, there are plenty of environmentally friendly alternatives to balloons, to use as decorations, in celebratory moments, party toys, and water fights.
Some of these options might take a bit more time and effort, but it’s well worth it when you know the long-lasting cost of the momentary joy of a balloon, to animals and the environment.