Balloon releases and sky lanterns are a familiar sight at festivals, weddings and memorials. But what goes up, must come down. After guests disperse and other decorations have been packed away, the balloons and lantern frames that created a few moments of happiness will litter the surrounding area for months or even years.
Balloons, sky lanterns and plastic confetti aren’t recyclable and take years to biodegrade. They break into smaller and smaller pieces until they turn into microplastics, which are consumed by fish, birds, turtles and other wildlife.
More than 270 experts recently rated balloons as one of the major threats to marine mammals, seabirds and turtles.
- Researchers at The University of Tasmania examined more than 1700 deceased seabirds and found nearly one in five died from ingesting a balloon or balloon pieces. Soft plastics represented just five percent of the debris ingested, but caused 40 percent of deaths.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posted disturbing images of dead wildlife to their website in an effort to convince people to stop releasing balloons.
What About Biodegradable Balloons?
You may have found information that latex balloons biodegrade, “as quickly as an oak leaf.” This would be true if balloons were made from 100 percent natural latex, but they’re not. Balloons are made from latex processed with dyes, plasticizers and other chemicals.
As these photos show, balloons take years to fully decompose. In the wild, it’s only a matter of time until the balloon becomes the last meal of a hungry bird, turtle, or other animal.
Sky Lanterns are Not a Sustainable or Green Alternative to Balloons
Some consider sky lanterns, also known as fire lanterns, as an acceptable alternative to balloons. Unfortunately, sky lanterns are not environmentally-friendly. “Biodegradable” lanterns made of bamboo take decades to break down, and can injure or entrap animals in the meantime.
They can also start dangerous fires. More than 30 animals died in Germany after floating lanterns started a fire inside a local zoo.
Sky lantern fires endanger people as well.
- In 2013, a sky lantern ignited a fire in The West Midlands, UK that injured 13 of the 200 firefighters who responded to the blaze and created £6m in damage.
- Sky lanterns have caused flight delays at major airports in China, Thailand and other countries. Just one lantern could take down a plane if it got sucked into a jet engine.
Many countries ban sky lanterns, including: Argentina, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, New Zealand, and Spain. Twenty-nine US states ban sky lanterns as do some parts of Canada.
Wales have banned sky lanterns on all council land since 2018, but they remain legal in England and Scotland. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), Marine Conservation Society and other groups urge concerned citizens to contact their MP.
8 Alternatives to Mass Balloon Releases and Sky Lanterns
Sending lanterns aloft or releasing colourful balloons are a symbolic way to memorialize a loved one. But when you think about it, these activities are basically littering. It’s worth asking, is that a respectful way to honor someone?
While it can be hard to break with tradition, there are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives to balloon releases and sky lanterns. Here are a few of our favourite ways to celebrate that won’t endanger animals or local communities.
Divers love blowing bubbles underwater, and it’s just as fun topside. Bubbles are cheaper than balloons, better for the environment, and just as fun and floaty. You can even “go big” with giant bubbles. Here’s a recipe for a bubble solution made with eco-friendly dish soap.
Instead of plastic confetti, throw something natural like birdseed, flower petals or dried autumn leaves. At a wedding, picturesque ribbon wands, pinwheels, or small tinkling bells are a fun alternative (and a nice wedding favor for guests).
Flying Wish Paper
Write your wishes on this special paper, light it on fire and watch it fly up and burn away. Enjoy the floating light effect of a wish lantern without the fire hazard.
Choose a colour, style or shape to fit any event theme.
Luminarias or reusable luminaries
Luminarias made from paper bags and tea candles create a beautiful ambiance of flickering fire, as do reusable mason jars with solar lights.
Invite party guests to help create a pod of origami whales. It’s easier than you may think, just watch this video.
Plant a tree or flowers
Planting a tree creates a symbolic, long-lasting and eco-friendly memorial that honors your loved one and the earth. You can also write a message on seed paper that will burst into colourful flowers after you bury it.
If you don’t have space to plant something, place a painted rock or stone somewhere meaningful. Support a local artist, or paint your own.
The ideas above are just a few ways to enhance a wedding, memorial, or other event without creating an environmental hazard. Help us spread the word about these environmentally-friendly alternatives, and let us know about other ways you like to celebrate!