Many of us are aware that balloon releases pose a serious threat to the health of marine wildlife. Unfortunately, too few people understand this. I took the photo above and the others in this article on just one walk along a Mid-Atlantic beach. As you can see, three different balloons washed up along about a half-mile of shore. This is not at all unusual.
A paper published in the scientific journal, Marine Life, by an international team in Australia and the US named balloons and plastic bags among the greatest threats to seabirds, turtles and marine mammals, because of their entanglement risks, stating: “While balloons are generally small compared to plastic bags, they are often associated with a length of twine that likely poses the greatest entanglement threat.”1
More and more states and localities are passing laws to make balloon and sky lantern (Chinese paper lanterns) releases illegal. A nonprofit called Balloons Blow has a list here. They also have a Wall of Shame and a list of Balloon Releases Averted that are worth checking out on their site. 2
Lots of people are coming up with good alternatives to releasing helium balloons that still fill the emotional need, whether it is celebrating a birthday or memorializing the loss of a loved one. 3,4 Ideas seem to fall into two categories: Symbolic replacements that still fly/float/burn (but safely) and/or Activities that feel celebratory with reusable gear. Here is a quick list to start your thinking about alternatives to helium balloons:
Bubbles – Making bubbles, whether large or small is plain fun. Bubble mixtures are easily found online, or you can buy kits to make giant bubbles that bring lots of smiles.
Floating flower petals or a ring of flowers – When done modestly (not too many petals or flowers) and thoughtfully (choose a variety native to the area), floating petals or a small ring of flowers can lend the same feeling of letting go that a balloon release may have offered. 2
Burn a candle or lantern – I have a big, fat, beautiful candle I light on the same day each year for an hour to treasure a special memory. I knew someone who had a small brass lantern used for the same purpose. It can travel with you to a beach or sit on a table in your garden as you create your own annual custom.
Celebratory Activities (with reusable gear)
Fly a kite – This is one of my favorites. Flying a kite can be a very uplifting experience (sorry!), the experience can last for hours, and is something you can do to recognize a special day, year after year.
Ribbon streamers—If you want to be active, you can buy or make ribbon streamers and dance or run along the beach. Children love to run with streamers and just listening to their joyous shouts can make anyone smile.
Drumming – This is an activity you have to do while considering the acoustic impact on fellow beachgoers who are not part of your celebration.
The video below from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium shows the rescue of a Green Sea Turtle name Chex who had ingested an entire balloon and ribbon, most likely mistaking it for a jellyfish. Chex was one of the lucky ones. 5,6
These are just a few ideas. It would be wonderful to hear from readers what you like to in place of releasing helium balloons to celebrate an occasion or memorialize a loved one!
1Wilcox, Chris et al. Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife. Marine Policy 2016;65:107-115.
2BalloonsBlow.org. Balloon Laws. Website.
3Denny, Megan. Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Balloon Releases and Sky Lanterns. PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Blog. 24 April 2019.
4Duncan, Debra. Balloons Pose a Risk to Wildlife & the Environment. Environmental Nature Center, Newport Beach.
5VIDEO: Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Why You Shouldn’t Release Balloons. 8 June 2018.
6Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Blog. Why You Should Find Ocean-Friendly Alternatives to Balloons. 23 August 2018.
R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.
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