Colorful and bright balloons. The problem is that our latex balloons are neither environmentally friendly nor sustainable. Here we explore eco-friendly balloon alternatives and why switching out balloons is a small step we can all take to help the environment.
It’s a spectacle most of us have seen dozens of times over the years: at the apex of a grand celebration, hundreds or even thousands of balloons get released. To heighten the sense of awe and wonder, these helium-filled balloons fly. As we watch, they slowly rise into the sky and eventually disappear from sight, signalling a sort of anti-climatic end to the big celebration.
That’s not the end of the balloons, however. A helium-filled balloon can travel hundreds of miles from its point of origin. In days past, schools would hold balloon release days in which children would each have a balloon with a postcard attached for the finder to put in the mail, and the child whose postcard came back to the school from the farthest distance received a prize.
Those days of innocent celebration are officially over, however. Balloons, and in particular helium-filled balloons, are extremely harmful to our environment for several reasons. As we go forward in this article, we’ll spend some time discussing precisely what’s wrong with balloons. Rather than beginning on a negative note, let’s begin by discussing some eco-friendly alternatives we can use to celebrate in place of helium-filled balloons.
Kite flying was a time-honored pastime of American youth through the heart of the 20th century. Many baby boomers grew up making kites out of newspaper and random branches, using rags for tails. If you had 10¢, you had your choice of a multitude of kites at the dime store. While kites are still readily available and inexpensive, they have fallen out of favor in the digital-geared 21st century. The beauty of kites is that a few dozen can fill the sky more colorfully than a hundred balloons, will create lasting memories for children who have never seen multiple kites in flight. And unlike latex balloon releases at birthday parties where you’ll never see the balloons again, you can easily retrieve kites for future adventures for use again and again.
Like kites, pinwheels are inexpensive and can be handmade. Patterns for pinwheels that spin with beautiful designs are readily available online. Unlike kites, a pinwheel does not require a favorable wind. If children or even adult celebrants want to see a handheld pinwheel turn, they can make their own wind by blowing directly on the center of the wheel or whipping it through the air.
Rows of pinwheels placed in yards and on hillsides facing the wind have a marvelous effect as party decorations. Unlike the plastic discards of single-use balloons that simply don’t last, people tend to take their pinwheels home with them to keep as souvenirs when celebrations conclude.
If you want to see something beautiful and shimmering float away into the sky as an alternative to balloons, few things are as universally loved and easy to produce as soap bubbles. The youngest children become fascinated as they learn to create a bubble from an inexpensive bottle. The oldest adults get big smiles when they open a bottle and start to make bubbles. Bubbles are ecologically sound. No helium used to make these alternatives to balloons alternative fly, and no latex balloons left littering the after-party.
Some bubble producers make a point of expressing the eco-friendly nature of their products on their labels. Bubbles are adaptable to weather conditions: whether it’s a windy day or dead calm, you can make bubbles fill the air. You can replicate the bubble formula with household soaps to lower the cost even further. And the augment these homemade solutions with other substances like glycerin to create longer-lasting, higher-flying bubble displays. For sure, they won’t fly as far as your expectations of large-scale balloon releases. But then once they’ve burst, all that’s left is a little environmentally friendly soap suds.
The notion of augmented bubble solution takes us to the proven concept of giant bubbles. Using hoops and other closed instruments of various sizes, you can create giant bubbles that are dazzling to watch and to make. Few sights are as awe-inspiring as a bubble that completely encloses a large adult or the view of an undulating bubble rising above the ground and busting over laughing spectators. Whereas you can get giant balloons, they fall well short, trying to perform this trick.
We love these! A simple idea, just dip the fabric in water and throw them at whoever you believe deserves a dousing. These items are handmade and come in rainbow colors. Balloons, but not balloons.
Rather than celebrating in a way that is detrimental to the environment, there are various ways to mark an occasion or to honor individuals by planting new life. Often select dates or events are marked by the planting of a tree that has a significant meaning. For instance, the Survivor Tree’s trimmings, the closest living thing that survived the Oklahoma City Bombing, have been planted all around the world as expressions of peace and unity.
Sometimes communities begin gardens to celebrate an event, with each celebrant given a particular seed or sprout to plant. Another beautiful idea is the wildflower bomb: clay filled with wildflower seeds surrounded by tiny burlap clippings that can be thrown into a desolate area. Then, in the springtime, the area fills with flowers. Something that grows green forever once released from the hand is inevitably more eco friendly than waving goodbye to helium balloons forever.
This is a broad category of celebratory devices, most inexpensive or homemade, including various types of drums. A wooden spoon on the bottom of a stockpot makes an attention-getting drum. Drumming in unison requires little, if any, practice and is a time-tested way of expressing joyous excitement. Many people who would like to see an end to the ecologically unfriendly fireworks practice have recommended drumming as an alternative.
In addition to drumming, you can celebrate with whistles, bells, and other intentional noisemaking devices. Most college and professional sports teams have select dates when they encourage fans to use certain noisemakers. Whistles ignite crowd enthusiasm. And have even helped to dethrone Eastern European dictators. Bells—in particular, cowbells—are an extremely boisterous way of broadcasting your celebration for a mile in every direction.
If the celebration you’re planning involves someone making an entrance or celebrant processing in any way, an arch or arches are an elegant way to express the occasion’s specialness. Arches can be made in any color from paper decorations such as honeycomb balls, paper flowers, bunting, tissue paper pom-poms, stars, snowflakes, or dozens of other paper designs. They can be suspended in many ways: from chicken wire, from twine strung from one part of the ceiling to another, from metal stanchions, and so on. A more expensive alternative, but one that is quite elegant, is using flowers rather than paper to create the arches. To enhance a decorative arch’s appearance, you can combine flowers and paper for a celebration that is as tender as it is joyous.
And the best news is that you can recycle paper while flowers biodegrade. And that has to beat a bunch of sad-looking deflated balloons. Of course, decking your arches out in eco-friendly, recyclable natural materials not only means you don’t need balloons but looks better too.
For indoor or nighttime celebrations, one solemn and majestic form of decoration is a pathway created by lit candles or luminaries. Candles are relatively inexpensive, especially when bought in bulk. You can place them in ranks amid other decorations or handheld. A particularly emotive celebration occurs when attendees move dozens or hundreds of handheld candles in unison to music.
Another variation of this is the luminary, which basically is a candle within a covered, opaque container such as a white paper lunch bag. If a procession is to take place, having guests walk down a pathway of luminaries (on Etsy) is quite touching for those more special occasions such as weddings. With a little thought, replacing those printed birthday balloons on sticks sometimes given as gifts with light giving candles is not merely more beautiful for the occasion but also after, and far more eco friendly.
This is a particularly memorable way to celebrate the loss of a loved one or a poignant, even tragic event. Celebrants walk to stations around tables and write down their thoughts, regrets, memories, prayers, and wishes on small tissue paper pieces. Afterward, they hold lit candles beneath the tissue and release the strips as they catch fire and float upward.
Celebrations need not simply be visual events but also auditory ones as well. Musical events can express profound emotions, regardless of the sentiments shared. It’s a rare community that does not have musically adept individuals who can put together sound celebrations. These can take several forms, such as having a handful of different musicians perform in succession during a community meal, organizing a one-time-only minstrel group to sing, or choosing a director who can engage an entire crowd in singing.
You can choose to revolve your celebration around a worthy cause. You can ask guests to bring donations of food, clothing, books, tools, and so forth to donate to a particular community charity. It adds special meaning when a charity representative is waiting at a designated point as the community of celebrants marches together and then creates a display from the donated items.
It may be that someone reading these ideas may respond, “These are all interesting, and I can see participating in some of them. Still, what’s wrong with balloons? They’re pretty, everyone loves them, and balloons don’t cause any harm. Do they?”
Balloons are far from harmless. They are ecological nightmares for several reasons. We should first consider the substances manufacturers make balloons from rubber, latex, and mylar. None of these materials biodegrades.
Why does it matter? Balloons are a pernicious litter problem. In landfills and waterways, birds and animals often mistake balloons for edible substances. Once consumed, the rubber blocks the digestive tract of the creature, essentially starving it to death. We should note that this is not at all an unusual occurrence. We exacerbate this characteristic when the balloon becomes airborne, as when filled with helium. As a result, the wind transports balloon waste vast distances over wildlife areas and the ocean. In turn, multiplying the number of creatures exposed.
Latex is biodegradable in its natural state. However, when made into balloons, the plasticize latex to the point that even commercial water recycling plants cannot break it down. Mylar balloons are additionally dangerous in that they are actually plastic covered nylon. While mylar is not biodegradable, it does release toxic chemicals and plastics into the earth and water wherever it lands. Because it can retain helium longer than latex or rubber, it has an even longer destructive reach.
Helium, of itself, is not particularly environmentally hazardous. However, with each fill of a balloon, we deplete our useable stores of helium. Helium is necessary for various personal and medical products: LED screens, MRI scanners, and fiber optics. Thus, each time we fill a balloon to celebrate a two-year-old’s birthday, we increase the cost of these products upon which we rely.
A quick search online, and you’ll find many latex balloons that stack up eco-friendly credentials and claim to biodegrade. They usually make biodegradable balloons from natural latex.
The problem with many of these eco-friendly balloons, even the natural ones, is that they require just the right conditions to break down. So whereas for the most part, we can be confident biodegradable balloons, when released, cause less harm than their counterparts, it’s not that simple.
Recent research has attempted to verify some balloon makers’ claims that their biodegradable balloons do, in fact, compost and degrade naturally in the environment to nothing. Thus far, no balloon of any type has demonstrated truly biodegradable qualities.
We only have to note how many balloons we come across every year at birthday parties and events. Clearly, the balloon industry is vast. So, if you must use balloons, we recommend you choose biodegradable, eco-friendly alternatives. Meanwhile, the technology that allows us to produce eco-plastic that genuinely causes little to no harm in the environment improves all the time. As such, we may well see truly biodegradable balloons before too long.
However, the best thing we can all do in our search for sustainable products and eco-friendly alternatives to plastic and other single-use items such as latex balloons is to avoid materials that we can’t reuse. Or even better, reuse what you already have.
Balloons, and in particular helium-filled balloons, are a terrible habit our society has acquired. Let’s face it; there isn’t anything creative or unique about buying a dozen helium-filled balloons to celebrate someone’s birthday, graduation, promotion, or housewarming. If we really want to let someone know they are special or that the event they are celebrating is important, we need to be creative enough to find new ways to celebrate that express our joy without trashing our environment.