Please Don’t Buy Balloons


My husband and I hike in some remote locations. In fact, as an archaeologist, he is often in places where he doesn’t see another soul, besides his coworkers, for days on end. Yet one thing seems to be ever present: balloons. They’re stuck in trees, hung up in bushes, caught in washes. And so I beg you: Please don’t buy balloons.

I get their allure. In fact, every time I go grocery shopping, my two and a half year old giddily shouts, “Balloons!” and then names everyone she sees—Pooh, Elsa, Mickey Mouse, etc. They are festive; they are fun. But they are so bad for the environment.

While this is an extreme example, The Atlantic wrote an article (and there is even a documentary) on The Balloonfest that Went Horribly Wrong. In 1986, the United Way sponsored a fundraiser in the greater Cleveland area that sent 1.5 million balloons into the air, trying to secure a spot in The Guinness Book of World Records. The balloons, of course, “wreak[ed] havoc on the city, litter[ed] Lake Erie, and, tragically, impede[d] a Coast Guard search-and-rescue mission for two missing fishermen.”

Ok, you might think, but that’s 1.5 million. I’m only going to get a handful for my child’s birthday party. That can’t do much harm, right?

Well, balloons typically come in one of two materials: Mylar or latex. Mylar (or “foil”) balloons, which I most commonly see on my hikes, never biodegrade. Latex balloons are usually made from neoprene, which again, doesn’t break down. Some are advertised as more natural (made from natural rubber), but even these take years to biodegrade because of the plasticizers and additives used in their creation.

Besides being a source of litter, balloons are also harmful to wildlife, livestock, and pets, which can be injured or killed by eating balloon fragments. Also, Mylar, which have a metallic coating, cause thousands of power outages each year as they collide with circuit breakers and power lines. Helium, a common balloon-filler, is a finite and rapidly disappearing resource.

Are you convinced of their harm yet? If not, this is a much more comprehensive article about the problems with balloons.

But still, you might want something festive for weddings, birthday parties, and other celebrations. Fortunately, there are many alternatives to both balloons and their sisters-in-crime, confetti. I haven’t tested any of these yet, but I encourage you to in your quest to have more environmentally conscious celebrations. If you have experience with one of these suggestions or have some of your own, please add to the comments!

  • Punching shaped holes from leaves (doubles as a kid-friendly party activity)
  • Confetti made from dried flowers (100% biodegradable; can purchase at many online stores)
  • Absorbent cotton water “balls” instead of water balloons
  • Light balloons (a more eloquent option; balloon-shaped but made of LED lights for outside décor)

So next time you are shopping for party decorations, please bypass the balloons or go for a more environmentally friendly option. They provide short-term joy, but have very long-lasting—and negative—consequences. Mother Earth will thank you, and so will I!