If not properly disposed, balloons can suffocate or starve wildlife long after the party’s over. The Marine Conservation Society estimates that the number of balloons along shorelines has tripled in the past decade. As with plastic bags, animals often mistake balloons for food. Eating balloon slivers can cause them to get sick or choke. Partially inflated balloons can clog the digestive tract, starving the animal to death. Besides the balloons themselves, the ribbon used to tie them can choke and/or strangle wildlife.
The latex in balloons can take from months to years to biodegrade, depending on the environment where they fall, and foil helium balloons don’t biodegrade at all. In other words, one balloon could harm several creatures.
Helium balloons can drift far and wide. Typically a balloon will rise five miles before freezing temperatures cause it to burst into pieces. Those then scatter across an area that varies depending on wind speed and direction.
In 1993, Baltimore’s National Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Program and medical staff extracted more than three square feet of plastic debris from the intestines of a stranded pygmy sperm whale, which they named Inky. The largest item recovered was a foil balloon. Inky’s ordeal later led Maryland and other states to pass legislation limiting mass balloon releases.
Protect animals from balloons by properly disposing them. Deflate and cut balloons and any ribbon into small pieces, sealing them tightly in a bag before discarding them. You can also re-use the plastic bag in which the balloons were packaged.) Add any non-recyclable “micro-trash” lying around the house—like gum wrappers and bottle caps—which can also harm wildlife if swallowed.
Skip helium balloons, especially outdoors. Otherwise, keep them tethered to furniture or tied around children’s wrists. Consider eco-friendly, yet equally celebratory, alternatives to balloon releases, such as blowing soap bubbles, or planting trees or flowers.
–The Sierra Club