Balloons have many uses, including as popular decorations for parties and celebrations. Some people even release balloons in remembrance of a loved one.
But balloons have come under fire in recent years due to the potential negative impacts that they have on the environment, including the harm that they cause to wildlife – especially if they aren’t disposed of properly.
Are balloons really bad for the environment? Do the negative environmental impacts justify the concern?
Balloons, in general, are bad for the environment because of what they are made of and how they are (or aren’t) disposed of.
In this article, we’ll explore the eco-friendliness of balloons and explain whether or not there are any aspects of balloons that aren’t bad for the environment.
And if you’re looking for eco-friendly alternatives to balloons, check out our article here.
1. What Are Balloons Made Of?
Latex is a natural material, while mylar and vinyl are synthetic materials. Let’s take a closer look at each material separately.
Latex balloons are the original material used to make modern versions of balloons.
You may also hear these balloons referred to as rubber balloons, but we’re going to refer to them as latex or natural rubber because rubber can be natural or synthetic.
Latex refers to the milky substance found inside the rubber tree, and when this substance is cured using heat or air, it hardens to form rubber.
Synthetic rubber is made from crude oil by-products similar to the way that plastic is, but it doesn’t have the same properties as natural rubber.
Natural latex rubber is preferred for balloons over synthetic rubber because natural latex is more elastic than synthetic rubber, which allows the balloon to stretch more without popping.
But when used for balloons, the natural rubber is often treated with chemicals as well since it is naturally porous, which would allow air to escape.
Mylar is the technical name for the foil balloons that often have writing or designs on them, but it’s also the name of the material used to make them.
Mylar is a type of plastic film that is made from stretched polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and has a thin layer of aluminum foil on top of it.
It’s a popular material for balloons due to having a high tensile strength – which means it can stretch without breaking – but it also has gas-barrier properties which allow it to hold in helium.
Vinyl is another type of plastic material made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Vinyl is not the most common material used for balloons, especially single-use balloons that you would use for parties and such.
Balloons made out of vinyl are reusable and are what you commonly see outside of businesses to advertise grand openings, sales, etc.
Vinyl is more durable than other types of balloon materials and you don’t have to use helium to inflate it.
2. Are Balloons Eco-Friendly?
Latex balloons are more eco-friendly than balloons made from mylar or vinyl. That’s because latex is a natural material and mylar and vinyl are not.
Mylar and vinyl are both types of plastics, and plastics are not eco-friendly due to the source of the raw materials as well as how they are made.
Plastics are made as a result of refining crude oil. The crude oil is collected by drilling, which causes habitat loss as well as water and pollution through potential oil spills as well as air pollution as a result of running the equipment needed to collect the oil.
The manufacturing of plastic also relies on heavy chemical use and also contributes to pollution through greenhouse gas emissions as well as potential water and soil contamination.
Manufacturing plastics also uses a lot of energy, most of which comes from burning fossil fuels. This also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions as carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
Plus, you have to consider that’s just for making the actual plastic, not the balloons themselves. Making balloons uses a fair amount of energy as well.
It’s worth noting that even though latex balloons are more eco-friendly than mylar and vinyl balloons, they still aren’t super eco-friendly themselves.
Latex still has to undergo manufacturing processes, such as using heat or chemicals to cure the latex and turn it into rubber.
Plus, latex is often combined with other chemicals to make the cured rubber more suitable for balloon-making – and manufacturing the balloons also uses a lot of energy which again, mostly comes from burning fossil fuels.
Balloons also pose environmental harm during disposal, an aspect that we’ll focus on separately.
3. Are Balloons Biodegradable?
There’s no question that mylar and vinyl balloons are not biodegradable since they are made from plastic.
Although plastics can degrade some over hundreds or thousands of years, they are not considered biodegradable since they do not return naturally to the environment.
As far as latex balloons being biodegradable, there seems to be mixed information.
Because latex comes from natural materials, many people assume and even claim that it is biodegradable.
Although balloons made from latex don’t take as long to degrade as balloons made from plastic, they still don’t decompose quickly and can take several years or even decades to do so.
In fact, one study found that over 16 weeks (4 months), latex balloons that were composted only lost 1-2% of their mass.
If the trends in that study continued, the latex balloons that were composted could take at least 15 or more years to fully biodegrade.
The same study found that latex balloons that were placed in freshwater actually gained mass which was attributed to the intake of water.
That means that balloons in freshwater may not degrade at all or would degrade at an even slower rate than 1-2% per 16 weeks.
Plus, remember that the latex used to make balloons is often combined with chemicals – such as plasticizers, for example – to make it better suited for balloon-making.
When the balloon does start to degrade, it will potentially leach those chemicals into the soil or water and contaminate it.
Qualatex, one of the leading producers of both latex and mylar balloons, has a sustainability initiative that instructs consumers not to release balloons into the environment.
They mentioned that their mylar balloons are not biodegradable but suggest latex balloons are a biodegradable option.
Qualatex states that “the rate of degradation is highly variable as it’s influenced by many variables such as temperature, the amount of light, the presence of latex consuming microbes, etc.”
This is true, as these qualities can affect how quickly a latex balloon degrades.
However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are biodegradable or that they will degrade quickly.
The bottom line is that just because a product is made with natural materials, it doesn’t always mean that it is biodegradable.
Yes, balloons may degrade over time, but degradation and biodegradation are not the same things.
To be biodegradable, the balloons would have to completely return to their natural environment and do so much quicker than over the course of multiple decades.
4. Are Balloons Compostable?
Balloons made from mylar and vinyl are not compostable since they are not biodegradable. They won’t decompose in your compost and can leach chemicals into it.
With that being said, it’s not a good idea to compost latex balloons either since there is mixed information about the biodegradability of it.
Remember that in the above study, latex balloons only degraded 1-2% in compost over 16 weeks.
If you try to compost them and they do degrade faster than that, they can still leach the chemicals used to make the balloon into your compost, which would contaminate it.
5. Are Balloons Sustainable?
Latex balloons are more sustainable in how they’re made than mylar and vinyl balloons since latex comes from a natural and renewable resource.
Mylar and vinyl balloons are derived from natural resources as well, but the crude oil used to make them is non-renewable, which means that they will eventually run out.
Even though latex balloons are more sustainable than mylar and vinyl in how they are made, they are not more sustainable in how they are disposed of.
Although there aren’t any balloons that are biodegradable, mylar and vinyl balloons can be reused.
But there aren’t any balloons that are truly sustainable, nor is one more sustainable when compared to the others.
6. Are Balloons Recyclable?
Latex balloons are not recyclable since they can not be broken down in a way that is useful to make other products out of. This is why they aren’t sustainable as far as how they can be disposed of.
Since foil balloons are actually made up of two different materials that have to be separated before recycling, they usually can’t be recycled either.
A few specialized facilities may accept mylar, but these facilities are still few and far between due to the cost and logistics of recycling mylar.
Vinyl balloons usually can’t be recycled either, at least from a post-consumer standpoint. Although vinyl is a type of plastic, it can’t be recycled with other plastics because it would contaminate the recycling stream.
However, vinyl can be recycled with other vinyl products, but this is usually done at the industrial and pre-consumer level.
The bottom line is that there is a very low chance that you’ll be able to recycle any type of balloon, at least for the foreseeable future.
7. Are Balloons Reusable?
Because latex balloons are not as durable as other types of balloons, they are not designed to be reused.
With that being said, you can get a bit more use out of the balloons if you find another way to close off the opening besides tying it in a knot. Untying a knot in a balloon can be difficult without damaging the balloon.
Plus, the quality of these balloons degrades over time as they become stretched out and weaker. This is another reason why latex balloons aren’t sustainable even though they are made out of more sustainable materials.
Foil (mylar) balloons can be reused and refilled provided that they have a self-sealing valve and the balloon doesn’t get punctured in any way.
You can get more life out of a foil balloon by tying the ribbon below the self-sealing valve once the balloon is filled. Doing so helps to ensure that the valve doesn’t become damaged.
However, the time that the balloon will stay afloat decreases with each refill, especially if you don’t remove as much of the old helium as possible.
Helium tanks rarely contain 100% helium, especially due to the worldwide helium shortage. The amount of helium can be as much as 98% but most tanks contain at least 80% helium. The rest of the tank is just filled with air.
Each time you refill a foil balloon with helium, more air enters into the balloon if the old helium isn’t removed, which causes it to float for a shorter amount of time. Helium is a lighter gas than air is, so the excess air weighs the balloon down.
Vinyl balloons are the most reusable option, as they are more durable than latex and mylar balloons. They don’t have to be filled with helium either. However, they don’t float by themselves.
They are attached to a pole that supports them. They are also more expensive than latex and mylar balloons, but they are the most sustainable option – despite what they are made of – if you use balloons regularly.
8. Are Balloons Toxic?
Latex and vinyl balloons are thought to be somewhat toxic due to containing carcinogens.
The carcinogens in latex balloons are not from the latex itself, but some of the chemicals used to make the balloons, and users are put at risk when blowing up the balloons with their mouths instead of with helium.
Polyvinyl chloride, the main component of vinyl, is a well-known carcinogen due to containing dioxin, a substance that can be emitted during the manufacturing, use, and disposal of vinyl products.
Mylar balloons are thought to be the least toxic. There are no known carcinogens in mylar, and the only risk to humans would be if the balloons were to catch on fire or ground into a powder, both of which could cause respiratory distress.
9. Are Balloons a Waste of Helium?
Helium is in short supply on Earth, and there have been on-and-off helium shortages in recent years.
It’s a non-renewable resource, but it is an extremely important resource due to its unique properties.
Helium is the most stable element and has a low melting and boiling point, which is why it is essential for use in many different industries. It’s used for welding, propelling rockets, and as a coolant in refrigeration, for example.
All of those are much more practical uses for helium than using it to fill balloons.
Balloons are not a necessity and considering that most balloons can’t be reused or can only be used a limited number of times, they do seem like a waste of helium, especially during helium shortages.
Although vinyl balloons have problems of their own, they are not a waste of helium like other balloons are since they don’t have to be filled with helium and can be supported in other ways so that they still “float.”
10. Are Balloons Dangerous to Wildlife?
Another reason why balloons are bad for the environment is that they are dangerous to wildlife, especially aquatic animals that often mistake them for food.
When balloons are released into the air, they have to come down eventually. A lot of balloons end up in waterways and because of the way they float in the water when deflated, they can look similar to jellyfish – especially when they have the string still attached.
Once the balloons deflate, they are easy for animals to ingest, and the fact that they don’t degrade quickly makes it even easier for them to be eaten by wildlife.
Ingesting a balloon can significantly harm and even kill an animal, and many balloons require surgery to remove.
That’s why it is important to dispose of balloons properly and never release them into the air.
11. Are Balloons Going to Be Banned?
It’s hard to say whether or not balloons are going to be banned completely, but some places do have bans in effect relating to balloons.
For example, some states in the U.S. have banned the release of balloons, while others are considering banning the sale of balloons entirely.
The main reasons behind the bans are to decrease the chances of them being ingested by animals, and also to help reduce ocean pollution.
But according to The Ocean Conservancy, balloons aren’t even among the top 10 most collected items in the ocean/beaches.
With that being said, many places are jumping on board to ban balloon releases, but some people also feel that banning balloons entirely might be overkill.
12. How to Dispose of Balloons Properly
Since most balloons are not biodegradable, recyclable, or reusable, the only way to dispose of them is to throw them away with other trash.
However, there are ways to throw them away that cause less harm to wildlife if they are ingested. Never release balloons, as this is irresponsible and simply littering.
Always pop balloons before disposing of them. Cut both the balloon and the string into smaller pieces before throwing them in the trash.
If you have a lot of balloons to dispose of, consider popping them, bagging them up together, and tying up the bag before throwing them away.
The above instructions will reduce the negative impacts that balloons have on wildlife.
Balloons are bad for the environment for several reasons. Except for latex balloons, many balloons are made from non-renewable resources.
Balloons also aren’t easily recyclable, even latex balloons, and there are limited ways that you can dispose of them.
They also pose a problem to wildlife if they are disposed of improperly or released. Many of them also have to be filled with helium, a non-renewable resource that is already in short supply, in order to float.
Because of their negative environmental impacts, many places are putting bans on balloon releases and even considering banning the sale of balloons entirely.
But you can help as well by limiting your use of balloons and making sure you dispose of them properly when you do use them.
And of course, there are many eco-friendly alternatives to balloons – check them out here.