Balloon releases: Colorful source of debate

Photo of Sarah Tressler

San Antonians have shown a predilection for mass balloon releases for everything from grand openings to funerals. But after they fly up and away, where do all these balloons end up?

“Balloon releases are in many ways acceptable forms of litter,” said Nick Mallos, a marine debris specialist with Ocean Conservancy.

And in San Antonio, most of our litter ends up in one place.

“Almost all the litter in the city makes it into our waterways and into our river, and then it makes its way down into the Gulf,” said Tracy Watson, a spokeswoman for Basura Bash, a volunteer organization that conducts an annual cleanup of San Antonio's waterways. What goes up, Watson pointed out, must come down. “It's just another level of trash.”

Phillip Kash, chief operating officer for Hi-Float Co., which makes a polymer that keeps helium-filled balloons floating longer, doesn't exactly agree. Kash pointed to a study that demonstrated that after latex balloons reach an elevation of about 5 miles above ground, they pop, but not in the same way they would at sea level.

“The balloon actually shreds into tiny little pieces,” Kash said by phone from Louisville, Ky., where Hi-Float is based. “Those shreds, when they fall back to earth, will degrade at about the same rate as an oak leaf.”

Cyndi Jahn, Bexar County district attorney's office victim services coordinator, organized a Monday balloon release to kick off National Crime Victims' Rights Week; and pointed to the same study when asked about the environmental impact of so many balloons.

“I did a lot of research. We used only latex balloons, which are biodegradable,” Jahn said the morning of the event. “Even if they fall just plain, they will degrade at the same rate as an oak leaf.”

The study that both Kash and Jahn fall back on, however, was conducted in 1989 by Don Burchette, husband of Marjorie Burchette, who opened Hi-Float Co. in 1982, and includes lines like these: “The above results are consistent with everyday observation and with common sense. Most of us never see balloons on the ground that have come from a balloon release, even though balloon releases occur very frequently throughout the country.”

Volunteers who do beach cleanups with the Ocean Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization, may beg to differ.

“The reality is, over the past 27 years, we've found more than a million and half balloons in underwater habitats and beaches,” said Mallos, who noted that in 2011 alone, volunteers picked up 93,913 balloons littering waterways and the ocean.

Mylar balloons' conductive properties pose a unique threat if they become entangled in power lines.

“They can cause power outages, so the balloon industry in general has a big push that if you sell a Mylar balloon that you have weight on it, because you don't want those released,” said Kash.

Mallos said there are better ways to express the sentiments behind balloon releases.

“Rather than releasing balloons, many organizations recommend doing something like planting trees or flowers in remembrance of someone. I've even heard of releasing butterflies,” Mallos said. “There are less impactful ways than releasing balloons.”

The National Crime Victims' Rights organization may already be swaying in that direction; on Wednesday, at a victims' tribute event at the San Antonio Police Academy, instead of balloons, doves will be released.