Consider Pollution-Free Alternatives to Balloon Releases 

Consider Pollution-Free Alternatives to Balloon Releases 

Plastic and latex balloons are one of the most common trash items on South Carolina beaches. (Photo: Erin Weeks/SCDNR)

Plastic and latex balloons are one of the most common trash items on South Carolina beaches. (Photo: Erin Weeks/SCDNR)

During a regular survey for sea turtle nests last week, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) biologists found a weathered blue balloon on the shores of a remote island. 

There’s nothing unusual about encountering deflated balloons on the beach. Plastic and latex balloons are unfortunately one of the most common trash items our shorebird and sea turtle biologists encounter in the field – even on uninhabited islands. 

What was unusual was the story this balloon had to tell. A label indicated it had been released by a family to commemorate the loss of a beloved young man. A little detective work also revealed its origin – two states over. 

Amazingly, the balloon had traveled nearly 500 miles in two months. 

A balloon found washed ashore by SCDNR biologist Michelle Pate.

A balloon found washed ashore by SCDNR biologist Michelle Pate.

What Goes Up Must Come Down 

Spring brings many reasons to celebrate, from graduation ceremonies to Mother’s Day. Some people choose to mark special occasions by releasing balloons. 

The problem is that each and every released balloon eventually deflates and returns to earth, where it becomes trash that can endanger wildlife. Rains carry everything downstream, which is why such trash often ends up in our waterways and, eventually, the ocean. 

“Sea turtles love to eat jellyfish, and unfortunately, balloons look remarkably like jellies when floating in the water,” said sea turtle biologist Michelle Pate. Research suggests that ingesting plastics does not typically kill marine wildlife such as sea turtles directly, but rather weakens them by taking up space in their digestive systems that is needed for nutrient-rich food. 

The balloons themselves are not the only hazard to wildlife. Like discarded fishing line, plastic balloon ribbons can entangle birds, fish, dolphins, and other animals, causing injury and death in severe cases. 

Balloon ribbons can entangle wildlife including shorebirds and sea turtles (Photo: Fran Bear)

Balloon ribbons can entangle wildlife including shorebirds and sea turtles (Photo: Fran Bear)

Wildlife-Friendly Alternatives 

Whether you’re celebrating a milestone such as graduation or honoring the memory of a loved one, consider a pollution-free alternative to balloon releases. There are countless beautiful gestures to mark an occasion that don’t put wildlife at risk. 

  • Create impermanent artwork – Use sidewalk chalk to draw a mural or write messages. 

  • Hang paper banners, pinwheels, pom poms – For a party, get creative with fun paper decorations. 

  • Plant wildflowers or a tree – Flowers and trees offer a beautiful, permanent reminder of a loved one. 

  • Raise money for a cause – Choose a reputable nonprofit to direct donations to. 

  • Host a volunteer day – Dedicate your time to a worthy cause. Volunteer at an animal shelter, visit a retirement home or food pantry, or even host your own clean-up in a nearby natural area.

A volunteer bags litter at a local clean up. (Photo: Kaitlyn Hackathorn/SCDNR)

A volunteer bags litter at a local clean up. (Photo: Kaitlyn Hackathorn/SCDNR)

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