Mylar balloons have really been blowing this week! In fact, I picked up six during my beach walk in North County on Wednesday.
By now, most people realize that when released, helium-filled balloons will eventually burst or deflate and will descend to Earth as harmful debris. As ocean pollution, they can injure or kill shorebirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles, but they can also be caught by westerly winds and be blown all the way to Anza-Borrego State Park where they may harm desert tortoises and other wildlife.
Sicco Rood, UC Irvine staff research associate at the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, has seen the inland problem first-hand: “I find these balloons and their strings and ribbons littering and tangled up in cacti and other plants in pristine areas of desert on a daily basis.” To address the issue, Sicco started a Change.org petition seeking to Ban Harmful Helium Filled Mylar Balloons in San Diego County California. Sicco is also working with Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter volunteers to advocate for ordinances, and the campaign has recently been featured in the local news (links below).
Environmental impacts to San Diego’s coastal and desert regions aren’t the only reasons to consider banning helium-filled balloons. Mylar balloons conduct electricity, and when they contact power lines, they may cause power outages, and they can even spark wildfires. Sadly, Mylar balloons caused the 2013 Deer FIre which burned 11,429 acres and injured five people in Northern California. A startling video, taken by a resident of Long Beach who captured an explosion, highlights what can happen when Mylar balloons get caught on power lines.
Injuries to wildlife, explosions, power outages, and fires should be reason enough to ban mylar balloons, but we must also consider that helium is a non-renewable resource. Serious shortages have occurred in the past with potential impacts to healthcare, industry, science, and technology. Consequently, instead of filling party balloons with it, helium should be reserved for essential purposes such as MRIs, respiratory treatments, high speed internet, and telecommunications.
In an article published by the BBC in 2012, Tom Welton, a professor of sustainable chemistry, stated “When you see that we’re literally just letting it float into the air, and then out into space inside those helium balloons, it’s just hugely frustrating. It is absolutely the wrong use of helium.”
Fortunately, there are innumerable ways to celebrate more sustainably (and creatively), including making prayer flags out of scrap fabric or decorating with recycled paper flowers—and if balloons are a must, air-filled stick balloons are still an option.
For more information, including additional ideas for balloon-free celebrations, please visit balloonsblow.org, and to find out how you can support the San Diego County campaign, email RAP@surfridersd.org.