Is a Balloon Biodegradable?

In this short report we will discuss the question “is a balloon biodegradable?”. We will identify some of the material composition that makeup the widely used balloons and how its use is affecting the wildlife. We will also be discussing its biodegradability, its recyclability, and know its issues to our environment.

Is a balloon biodegradable?

No, balloons are not biodegradable even though they are made from naturally occurring latex. The reason behind this is that this latex is further processed with chemicals such as sulfur to improve the quality such as tensile strength and durability of the balloon. This not only makes it non-biodegradable, but also is a cause of concern to the numerous wildlife and marine animals.

Studies carried out by Gilmore et al. has shown that latex balloons when tested in salt water, freshwater or compost did not degrade significantly for upto 16 weeks. This means that these can pose a threat to wildlife when they ingest it thinking of food.

What makes them non-biodegradable?

Balloons were used long before as a party material. Back then the main raw material for balloons was either animal intestine or bladder. But now we are onto a much better way than using animal parts for celebration. Most balloons now are made of rubber, latex or nylon fabric. Does that mean now we are safe and taking care toward animal atrocities? Definitely NOT. 

The natural latex obtained from wood sap is the main raw material for making balloons. Since these latex is obtained from natural sources, they are biodegradable. Surprisingly the balloon is not biodegradable. This is because latex used for making balloons undergoes several processes and many other ingredients are added to it that makes its chemical and physical structure different from its native form. 

This is the main reason that balloon material passes the stress test while naturally occurring latex does not and the new material is widely used for making balloons. The processed latex is not biodegradable and it takes many years to degrade similar to plastic. Thus adding to the already existing waste pile in the landfill.

It will also be hard to know that some balloons are made from nylon. This type of balloon is called mylar balloons and it is gaining more importance over the latex based balloon. What’s more scary is that Mylar balloons are coated with metal and plastic such as polyethylene. This plastic takes almost 400 years to completely biodegrade and even more years in landfills.

Currently there is no other source or raw material that can replace processed latex or plastics for making balloons. The so called biodegradable balloons are to a great extent not degraded by the soil bacteria. Several research and experiments have shown that the claimed biodegradable balloons still end up fresh with their knots even after several months.

Photo Courtesy: iStock. Latex from a tree.

Are balloons bad for our environment?

Balloons are a fun element for many party lovers. Its use is everywhere, be it for farewell or newcomers, retirement or a new job, bachelor parties and weddings, their presence is unavoidable. Kids love to play with balloons. They like to blow it, bounce it, and even pop it. Amid the happiness it gives, there are many unintended harmful effects that the use of balloons is causing to the living beings on the earth.

Balloon fragments that are generated after it’s popped remain on land as attractive food for many birds and animals. Being elastic in nature, these balloons endup in their body where they cause choking and other detrimental effects. Several fragments of balloons have already been found in dead animal’s stomachs. 

Releasing balloons to an unknown destination is a form of littering. The number of balloons that are littering our planet is third to the plastic. When these come back, it pollutes the earth, even the widely known biodegradable ones. On land these balloons are eaten by wildlife and birds. 

The balloon debris gets entangled in their necks and causes detrimental effects. In sea and water bodies they look attractive to turtles and sea fish and consume them thinking of food. Not only latex balloons, but the widely used plastic balloons are also causing havoc to the normal life of people. 

These plastic balloons are coated with metallic material. Mass releases of these balloons are affecting the electric system as when these balloons touch the powerline, it causes a surge in electricity and leads to fires causing possible injuries to people. 

Not just the balloons, but its accessories such as balloon sticks, ribbons and strings attached to it is another cause of concern. Plastic sticks that are used to give light weight to the balloon. These sticks end up in oceans where marine animals have to bear its effects. In a breathtaking video where plastic straw was pulled out of a turtle’s nose makes one realize the detrimental effect it causes to the animals that were never attended to. 

Nylon ribbon used for further decorating the balloons, is another such life threatening accessory that gets tangled on the body parts of an animal. This not only prevents them from doing their regular activity but also if unattended these can cause serious injuries or even death.

When we think of helping the environment from the balloon problem through the process of recycling, we are at a dead end. This is because the two forms of balloons – mylar balloons and latex balloons, are not recyclable and hence are far from being eco-friendly. Though latex is biodegradable, the latex balloon does not use a pure form of latex rather a chemically modified one to improve the quality of the balloon and hence is not biodgradable.

Photo courtesy: iStock. Balloon debris in water

Are balloons safe for children?

Though balloons are an attractive toy for many children, it is one of the leading causes of toy related suffocation death in children under eight years old. Almost 34% death occurs due to suffocation from the uninflated balloons. According to U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) injury data, uninflated and small pieces of balloons are the leading cause of suffocation death. 

There are two ways by which a balloon can cause an injury to a child. In an attempt to inflate the balloons, the child may suck it accidently into their mouth which can get stuck in their throat. In some cases children chew or suck on the uninflated balloons and on sudden reflex action as caused by falling or hitting, these balloons end up in their throat. 

Another way is from the debris of balloons after they are popped. If they are not discarded properly, children tend to chew or blow small pieces of balloons. These can accidentally end up in their throat and even lungs. The best way is to avoid the usage of balloons for parties. Doing this not only prevents the detrimental effects to wildlife, it also will keep our children safe in any fun event.

Is there any alternative to balloons?

Use of balloons is not the only fun activity that you can do at a party. The following lists give suggestions for much more fun items than a simple balloon. 

  • Blow bubbles
  • Paper Lanterns
  • Flowers
  • Paper chain
  • Bunting and streamers

You can make your own list of biodegradable items that you can use in parties to have fun. Remember that an eco-friendly item is the best alternative for any fun activities. Blow bubbles, for example, are kids’ favorite. These can be made at home using simple recipes. You can also make it into different shapes and get the children pumped up.

Paper lanterns are beautiful for any night party. They are not only biodegradable but also provide an elegance to the night functions. Those who are not allergic to flowers can use them for any kind of decoration. In addition to the aroma that it brings, the bright colors of the flowers adds energy to the party.

Conclusion

In this brief discussion we have answered the question “is a balloon biodegradable?” by answering some of the important questions related to its biodegradability and recyclability. We have also discussed the type of balloons that are causing detrimental effects to the wildlife and how our children are affected by its use.  

Frequently asked question (FAQs): Is a balloon biodegradable?

Does the balloon degrade in any condition?

No, balloons are not biodegradable and stay for a long time on the land without being affected by any condition or any microbial enzymes. Researchers have done experiments to test the degradability of balloons in sea water, freshwater and in compost. As expected these balloons did not degrade and stayed intact for 16 weeks. 

This shows that latex balloons do not biodegrade in most of the conditions present on the earth. As we all know plastics do not biodegrade for at least 400 years. Thus metallic coated plastic balloons are also not biodegradable and stay in landfill forever.

Are balloons harmful to our environment?

Balloons are proving to be more harmful than their use. They are left in the open air to land in unexpected places where they are left to degrade over time. These uninflated balloons are a major threat to the wildlife who think of food and eat it. The result is choking and death. Most of the accessories attached to balloons end in the stomachs of marine animals and birds causing them to starve and die. 

Not only animals and birds, the use of balloons has been a safety concern for many children. In the process of inflating, children accidentally suck the uninflated balloons which stuck in their throat.

What are balloons made of?

There are two types of balloons that are widely used – Latex balloons and Mylar balloons. Latex balloons are made from the naturally occurring latex from the wood sap. However to make a balloon, this latex undergoes several physical and chemical processes and renders it non-biodegradable.

Mylar balloons are made from polyester which are coated with metal covered plastics. Due to the presence of plastic its effect is similar to the plastic pollution in our environment.

Is releasing balloons illegal?

Mass release of balloons is illegal in many countries as these are depleting the non-renewable helium resource. In addition these are also causing electrical system problems when these balloons get caught in electric lines and cause fire and power outage. 

Are balloons affecting marine life?

Balloon littering is affecting wildlife including marine animals. Turtles, fishes, and seals are the most affected. The stretchy balloon gets tangled around the throats of these marine animals causing suffocation and starvation. Balloons stuck on the fins of fishes prevent them from swimming and they become their prey. Sea birds eat the balloon debris that gets stuck in their throat causing severe injuries. 

What are the eco-friendly alternatives to balloons?

There are many eco-friendly ways where one can celebrate their day. Use of paper lanterns gives beauty to the night celebration. Flowers and paper creepers give colors and aroma to the festivals. Kids enjoy the soap bubbles and they can spend their energy playing with them. 

References

Morgan E. Gilmour, Jennifer L. Lavers. Latex balloons do not degrade uniformly in freshwater, marine and composting environments. Journal of Hazardous Materials, Volume 403, 2021.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhazmat.2020.123629.

Andries, Jan. Scientific Research into degradability and Harm from Balloon Latex. Wageningen University and Research.

https://www.wur.nl/en/article/Scientific-research-into-degradability-and-harm-from-balloon-latex.htm

CPSC Safety Alert. CPSC Warns Consumers of Suffocation Danger Associated with Children’s Balloons. https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/5087.pdf 

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