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.
We’ve all enjoyed watching balloons fly off into the sky, meandering in the wind and eventually disappearing out of sight. Or we’ve joined a party or celebration with balloons in bright colors filling a room with a bit of joy and a sense of occasion.
That’s not the end of the balloons, however. A helium-filled latex balloon can travel hundreds of miles from its point of origin. However, balloons, particularly helium-filled balloons, are incredibly 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 latex balloons. Rather than beginning on a negative note, let’s start by discussing some eco-friendly alternatives we can use to celebrate in place of helium-filled balloons or party decorations.
11 More Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Balloons
1. Kites for filling the sky or decorating
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 newspapers 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, which will create lasting memories for children who have never seen multiple kites in flight. Unlike latex balloon release events at birthday parties where you’ll never see the balloons again, you can easily retrieve kites for future adventures for use again and again. As such, kites top our list of eco-friendly alternatives to balloons.
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.
3. Bubbles, small and large, make excellent eco-friendly balloon alternatives
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 blowing bubbles. Bubbles are ecologically sound. No helium was used to make these alternatives to balloons fly, and no latex sparkly blue balloons were 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. Y
ou can replicate the bubble formula with household soaps to lower the cost even further. And you can augment these homemade solutions with other substances like glycerin to create longer-lasting, higher-flying bubble displays.
Eco-friendly displays that burst into virtually nothing
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 an 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 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 when trying to perform this trick.
4. Crochet Water Balloons
We love these! A simple idea: dip the fabric in water and throw it at whoever you believe deserves a dousing. These reusable water balloons are handmade and come in rainbow colors, perfect for water balloon fights. Balloons, but not balloons.
5. Ribbon Streamers
Paper or reusable ribbon dancers or streamers may not float off into the sky, yet they make for a great alternative to lighten up a celebration in favor of balloons. Rather than searching out biodegradable balloons, you can surround yourself with colorful ribbon dancers fluttering in the breeze.
6. Earth Honors
Rather than celebrating in a way that is detrimental to the environment, there are various ways to mark an occasion or 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 worldwide 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.
Planting life anew to celebrate the occasion
Another beautiful idea is the wildflower bomb: clay-filled eco-friendly options with wildflower seeds surrounded by tiny burlap clippings that you can throw into a desolate area. Then, in the springtime, the space fills with flowers. Once released from the hand, something that grows green forever is inevitably more eco-friendly than waving goodbye to helium balloons forever.
7. Drums, Whistles, Bells, and Other Noisemakers
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 a highly boisterous way of broadcasting your celebration for a mile in every direction.
8. Arches & Paper Flowers to decorate as an alternative to balloons
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. You can make arches 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. You can also use floating flowers on water, which look amazing and is an all-natural alternative.
Eco-friendly paper alternatives beat biodegradable balloons.
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.
9. Candles and Luminaries
One solemn and majestic form of decoration for indoor or nighttime celebrations 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 is quite touching for those more special occasions such as weddings.
With a bit of 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 far more eco-friendly.
10. Flying Wish Paper
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.
11. Charitable Outreach
You can choose to revolve your celebration around a worthy cause. You can ask guests to donate food, clothing, books, tools, and so forth to donate to a particular community charity. It's a great way to add special meaning to an event and a worthy replacement to balloon releases that'll have your guests leave feeling good about having helped someone else out.
What’s Wrong with Balloons Anyway?
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?”
Apart from having spent hours painstakingly tying balloons to strings to color your celebration, balloons cause a great deal of broader harm.
We should first consider the substances manufacturers make balloons from rubber, latex, and mylar. None of these materials balloons are made from biodegrade. They are ecological nightmares for several reasons.
Why does it matter? Latex balloons or rubber versions 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.
Balloons do not biodegrade
Latex is a biodegradable material in its natural state. However, when made into balloons, they plasticize natural 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.
Furthermore, when choosing foil balloons, we continue to have a raw materials issue. Unfortunately, the large-scale mechanical recycling facilities in use in most urban areas don’t process these materials correctly because of their lightweight nature. Foil balloons made of lightweight metal will also not biodegrade.
Increasingly, councils, states, and territories have banned balloon releases. States such as Florida, California, and a growing number of US cities all have laws to prevent the release of helium balloons. The majority of UK councils do, too.
Helium used to fill balloons is non-renewable.
Helium, in itself, is not particularly environmentally hazardous. However, with each fill of a balloon, we deplete our useable stores of helium. Liquid 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.
Furthermore, numerous researchers have pointed to our careless use of this non-renewable resource2. Simply put, every time we go about filling balloons with helium to create that outdoor party vibe and then release them into the atmosphere, we squander some of our precious helium supply.
Is helium flammable? The short answer is no. Helium is a non-flammable inert gas. So, whereas it may be safe from fire, other difficulties present themselves.
Some reports have suggested that we’ll run out of helium in 20-30 years, and the worst of it is not that we’ll no longer be able to enjoy blue and white balloons disappearing into the sky as a symbol of calm or peace. Instead, for all of those balloon releases, we reduce the available supply for more critical healthcare applications.
What About Eco-Friendly Biodegradable Balloons
A quick search online and you’ll find many latex balloons that stack up eco-friendly credentials and claim to be environmentally friendly alternatives that biodegrade in the natural environment. A biodegradable balloon is usually made from natural latex.
The problem with many of these eco-friendly natural latex party balloons 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. After 16 weeks in an industrial compost heap, the biodegradable balloons they tested emerged totally unscathed1. In fact, the balloons retained their size and shape, barely breaking at all.
Are biodegradable balloons safe?
Thus far, no so-called biodegradable balloons of any type have 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, while these party essentials cause harm, the best solution is to find an eco-friendly alternative to your balloon needs.
Meanwhile, the technology that allows us to produce eco-plastic that genuinely causes little to no harm to the environment improves all the time. As such, when undertaking the search for where to buy biodegradable balloons, 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 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.
Avoid sky lanterns
Don’t be swayed by sky lanterns when looking for eco-friendly balloon alternatives or another option for a balloon release. Yes, these make a fantastic spectacle, especially at night, due to the flame and glowing paper balloons.
However, the metal structures used to keep their shape are super harmful to the environment, marine life, and animal life. These metal structures can entangle wildlife and present a choking hazard. Further, they rust away, eventually causing further damage to the surrounding soil wherever they may land.
Time to Bust the Balloon Habit
Balloons blow, 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. We can do this by choosing an environmentally friendly alternative to balloons that we don't end up trashing, or worse, releasing balloons to pollute the air and land or sea somewhere out of sight.
Meanwhile, whereas biodegradable balloons present promise on the surface, it appears the environmental reality may be less than our search for eco-friendly alternatives requires. So the next time you are doing a search for biodegradable balloons near me, consider that the best thing we can do for the environment is not to buy balloons at all.
Even if the technology catches up to provide us with latex balloons that do, in fact, biodegrade, we're no doubt better for choosing to celebrate with materials, props, and favors we can reuse and source sustainably.
We composted 'biodegradable' balloons. Here's what we found after 16 weeks. 17 August 2020, by Morgan Gilmour and Jennifer Lavers, phys.org
Clint Witchalls, Nobel prizewinner: we are running out of helium, New Scientist, Volume 207, Issue 2773, 2010, Page 29, ISSN 0262-4079, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0262-4079(10)61965-3