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Balloons : What Goes Up Must Come Down

by aulyasela3597

What goes up, as they say, must come down. And that’s why we won’t support balloon releases.

Almost everyone has released a balloon into the air at some point in their life. Whether it was intentional or accidental, we’ve all let go of that colorful plastic ribbon and watched the balloons float away. Usually, little kids are the ones whose fingers let balloons slip through, and although you shouldn’t get angry at them for accidentally releasing balloons, you definitely shouldn’t encourage it.

You probably haven’t thought much about what happens to the balloon after you can’t see it anymore — after all, out of sight out of mind — but you need to start thinking about it.

You may not realize it, but releasing balloons into the air is extremely harmful to the environment, especially animals.

Balloons Blow, an organization that “provides information to educate people about the destructive effects released balloons have on animals, people, and the environment, and strives to inspire and promote an eco-conscious lifestyle,” recently posted a photo guide explaining why you should never release balloons.

Balloons can travel thousands of miles, polluting the most remote & pristine places. Once they do, they become a danger to any animal that comes in contact with it. Many animals can’t tell the difference between food and litter, so they may accidentally ingest items that could hurt them.

When an animal swallows a balloon, it can block its intestinal tract, leading to starvation. Sea turtles & other marine creatures are known to confuse balloons as jellies. Ribbons & string that are sometimes attached to balloons can cause entanglement & death.

Once they’ve deflated or popped, and have been bleached by the sun, balloons in the ocean look exactly like jellyfish — a primary food source for sea turtles. The turtles ingest the deflated balloons, which can cause severe harm to their bodies, and eventual death.

While releasing balloons might not seem like polluting, it’s no better than throwing trash into our oceans and across our forests. It’s posing serious risks to the wildlife we share the planet with.

Even balloons that claim they are biodegradable still often take years to break down, and they may release chemicals into the environment as they do. Latex balloons primarily affect animals, but “mylar/foil balloons can cause dangerous power outages & spark fires. We fly a 90,000 cubic foot balloon and I have often pondered this question. 

As far as I can tell the propane gas itself (un-combusted) is not regarded as a green house gas and carries few to no environmental hazards if released directly into the environment. However, once burnt it does produce green house gases. It seems that it burns cleanly and produces less green house gases than conventional fuel. ie cars etc.

In its unburned form, released directly to atmosphere (as happens in small quantities during tank filling and purging of the gas lines after a flight) propane is an ozone precursor. ie its presence is one of the ways in which ozone is formed in the atmosphere. So in areas with high levels of air pollution the propane stimulates and contributes to the formation of ozone which is undesirable.

So how much propane gets into the atmosphere from a typical flight?

We burn approximately two tanks of propane per flight. In our balloon this roughly corresponds to inflation plus one and half hours of flying time. A single tank has an 37 litre capacity but not all the liquid gas is available to fly on. The pressure drops as the tank empties, until eventually the heat output of the burners is not sufficient to maintain level flight. We estimate about one third of the fuel remains in the tank. In cold weather its more and vice versa in hot weather. A flight burns roughly around 50 litres of liquid propane. As a balloon's envelope ages it becomes more porous, so loses heat more quickly and fuel consumption rises significantly. Older balloon are going to contribute much more propane, burned and unburned into the atmosphere.

The burners (technically the engine of the craft) operate in two modes. The direct mode provides nearly a 100% burn of the propane, most of the flight is done using this mode. The second, less used mode, is referred to as the 'cow burner'. This produces less noise than the main burner, making it useful when flying low over grazing stock so as not to alarm them. This mode is less efficient and I am hazarding a guess it leaves some unburned fuel in the column of hot air it generates.

In Europe there are around 3000 balloons, flying up to 50 times a year each. Our experience is we fly around 25 times per year, but the NW of England is not favoured with suitable ballooning weather so we are probably way below average. Using these rough numbers 7.5 million litres of propane are consumed by balloons over Europe. How much of a net contribution is this?

For laughs and giggles let us compare this annual consumption to the Europe wide consumption of oil. In 2010, the most recent stats I can find, Europe was consuming 2.5 Billion litres of oil per DAY. Which makes the 7.5 million litres of propane per YEAR seem pretty insignificant as a net contributor to pollution.

These back of the envelope calculations lead me to think that the petrol used to get the team together (four people drive a round trip of 40 miles to get to launch, total 160 miles) then another 30 to 50 miles of retrieve distance, adds more pollution than the flight itself.

So next time you see even a solitary balloon floating up, up and away, remember that at one end of that story is probably a crying child, but at the other may well be a dead turtle, dolphin or seabird.

Big balloon releases may not use balloons made of plastic or tied with fancy ribbons, but the sheer scale of them is alarming – with hundreds or thousands of balloons being released in one fell swoop. These don’t simply disappear into the wide blue yonder, they obviously end up somewhere. Even if the balloons are not made of plastic and labelled ‘degradable’, that all rather depends on them degrading conveniently before they manage to choke or ensnare something.

So, no, we won't support balloon releases  (or sky lantern releases for the same reasons) and fully supports campaigns like #DontLetGo by our friends in the Marine Conservation Society, as well as local initiatives to make sure ill-advised, out of date, and irresponsible inflated pollution releases simply don’t happen.

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Relaxistence88 wrote a review...

There have been several other letters that say balloons are not safe, but the debate still rages.

Natural latex is biodegradable and environmentally safe, but, according to Rubber Technology, it is treated with ammonia and with tetramethyl thiuram disulfide plus zinc oxide as a preservative against bacterial decomposition. Balloons are usually made with a small amount of plasticizer added. They hardly classify as natural after all that.

In fact, sewage treatment plant operators report that latex is one of several problem materials that are not affected by the biological treatment system. Remember that cocaine smugglers pack the drug in balloons or condoms before they swallow it for transport because it is so nondegradable in the digestive tract.

The balloon industry has made unsubstantiated claims about the safety of balloons. I have not been able to obtain a single scientific study to support the claim of biodegradable balloons.

"You, who have all the passion for life that I have not? You, who can love and hate with a violence impossible to me? Why you are as elemental as fire and wind and wild things..."
— Gone With the Wind