The environmental damage of balloons

white and red plastic heart balloon on sky during daytime
Balloon releases are a traditional part of many public events, but the environmental harm outweighs the spectacle | Photo by Pixabay on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 29th, 2019

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is home to one of the largest and oldest major races in the world, the Indianapolis 500. Held annually, this event brings in multiple streams of revenue for Indiana, but some of the traditions practiced at the race may be negatively impacting the environment.

Specifically, some controversy surrounds the balloon release: on the morning of the race, thousands of balloons float into the air in a tradition stretching back decades.

Balloons have a strong presence in human history. The first rubber balloons were invented in the early 1800s for hydrogen experiments; latex and mylar varieties came about later, and balloons slowly made their way into the public consciousness. A 2017 study published for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that roughly 30% of the public participated in events with balloon releases.

Released balloons eventually float back down after their helium leaks away. Often, these colorful orbs are snagged on branches and power lines, causing potential blackouts and electrical issues. The same NOAA study noted that thousands of balloon pieces wash up onshore every year. Brightly-colored latex is likely to appear edible to confused animals, who often try to eat the strings and scraps that fall into their environment.

The Indianapolis 500 is not the only public event prone to scrutiny over its decision to release balloons. In 1986, United Way in Cleveland, Ohio attempted to break the world record for the largest balloon release–one previously set by Disneyland. United Way released an estimated 1.5 million balloons into the air, causing a chain of reactions that interfered with a Coast Guard rescue mission and ending, ultimately, in a lawsuit.

Traditions will always be difficult to break, but many activist groups have been lobbying to ban balloons altogether for years now. Though some inconclusive studies are being conducted to determine how biodegradable latex really is, reducing latex and plastic pollution wherever possible is a key way to help our environment.

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