Helium-filled balloons look pretty when released at special events, but they eventually become earthbound trash littering land and water, often traveling great distances before reaching their final resting places; spans of up to 1,300 miles have been recorded. The Ocean Conservancy recently picked up nearly 94,000 balloon remnants in the course of a year’s worth of cleanup operations.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fish, dolphins, whales, seabirds and sea turtles have all been found with latex balloons in their stomachs, blocking their digestive tracts. One study of two stranded sperm whales in California attributed their deaths to huge amounts of consumed ocean debris. Another found that more than half of one species of sea turtle surveyed had trash in their gut; mostly balloons. The problem is so serious that several states and cities have already outlawed mass balloon releases.
Latex balloons are technically biodegradable, but that process can take six months or more, according to the UK National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers. Alternatives include laser shows, music performances, bubbles, banners and reusable inflatable characters.