You might think that blowing bubbles is harmless since they pop pretty soon after blowing them, but everything has some environmental impact.
For the most part, bubbles are not terrible for the environment since they’re mostly made from water, but there are environmental concerns about plastic packaging and a few other ingredients.
Here’s everything you need to know about bubbles and sustainability.
1. What Are Bubbles Made Of?
Bubbles form naturally in nature, when you exhale underwater or when the ocean waves form bubbles, but in this instance, we’re focusing on soap bubbles.
Homemade bubbles are made with dish soap, water, and glycerin or corn syrup.
Some people opt to skip the glycerin and corn syrup, but these bubbles pop much quicker without the support these ingredients provide.
Others will even add sugar to make their bubbles thicker.
When it comes to bubble solutions you can buy in stores, many brands don’t list their ingredients, but they appear to be similar to homemade bubble recipes.
Commercial bubble solutions might also contain additional ingredients to ensure their product is consistent and shelf-stable.
These ingredients may include polyethylene oxide, hydroxyethyl cellulose, guar gum, xanthan gum, propylene glycol, calcium chloride, or sodium alginate.
2. Are Bubbles Bad for the Environment?
The biggest environmental concern with bubbles is arguably the packaging.
Bubbles often come in colored plastic packaging with a small plastic wand.
Plastic is non-renewable. The materials to make plastic are sourced via mining which is also unsustainable.
Approximately 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions are traced back to the production of plastic.
Mining can produce high amounts of water, air, and soil pollution while physically degrading the surrounding environment due to soil erosion.
While many types of plastic are recyclable, plastic loses quality every time it is reused, so eventually, it must be discarded.
Bubbles usually come in colored containers. Some colors can be more difficult to recycle than others.
For example, black plastic is rarely recycled because the color is too dark for the sorting systems at the recycling plant to spot it.
While the bubble container may be recyclable, the wand may be too small and oddly shaped for your local recycling facility to accept.
You can buy large concentrated bubble solution containers and refill empty bottles to reduce waste and reuse old bubble wands.
Many brands have also started selling their bubbles in recycled packaging.
It typically requires less energy to make products from recycled materials and reduces the need to create new plastic.
Since most energy use worldwide does not come from renewable resources, this is a step in the right direction.
As for the bubble ingredients, glycerin comes from plants or animal fat, so it is renewable, although the process is fairly energy-intensive.
Corn syrup is also renewable since it comes from corn.
There are countless amounts of dish soap brands to choose from, each with different ingredients (you can find some of the most eco-friendly brands in our article here).
The following ingredients are common in dish soap:
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
- Sodium Chloride
- Acrylates copolymer
- Tetrasodium glutamate diacetate
- Propylene glycol
- Sulfuric acid
Sodium lauryl sulfate can be found in petroleum oil but can also be sourced from coconut or palm oil.
Plant-based sodium lauryl sulfate is biodegradable, so it does not persist in the environment.
It is unclear if petroleum-based sodium lauryl sulfate is also biodegradable.
In its raw form, it can be toxic to marine life, but the amount of this compound in soap and bubbles is small.
Sodium chloride is a salt found in rocks and seawater, so mining for salt is bad for the environment.
Phenoxyethanol is not regarded as phototoxic; studies on rats found it was nontoxic when applied orally or topically.
Methylisothiazolinone is toxic for marine life but is considered to have low toxicity when other animals, like birds, are exposed to it.
Acrylate copolymer is a type of plastic, so it is non-renewable and not biodegradable.
It is a water-soluble polymer found in cosmetics; research found these types of plastic are harmful to some kinds of marine plants.
Tetrasodium glutamate diacetate is made from plants, so it is biodegradable.
Terpineol has anti-fungal properties. There are several types of terpineol.
Research found these compounds can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are potent air polluters.
Propylene glycol is biodegradable and regarded as non-toxic – but it comes from petroleum, so it is non-renewable.
Phenoxyisopropanol is a type of phenoxypropanol and is biodegradable.
Sulfuric acid is corrosive and can harm plants and animals; it is also toxic to marine life.
Some fragrances may come from essential oils, which are renewable.
However, the environmental impact of fragrance oils is harder to determine since this is a vague term.
Some fragrance oils are plant-based, while others may come from synthetic ingredients and be toxic.
Although this ingredient list looks daunting, remember the main ingredient in bubbles is water.
So, the environmental exposure of the ingredients in dish soap is going to be somewhat limited.
Since the ingredients of commercial bubble mixtures vary drastically, it’s impossible to give any blanket statements about how eco-friendly bubbles are in that regard.
As for some of the common commercial bubble ingredients, guar gum is plant-based and biodegradable.
Xanthan gum is also renewable.
Sodium alginate is derived from brown algae, so it is renewable and non-toxic.
Although calcium chloride may be toxic to marine life, this impact is usually due to road salt entering waterways and not from bubbles.
Polyethylene glycol is typically seen as non-toxic.
Hydroxypropyl cellulose is regarded as safe for the environment.
3. Are Bubbles Harmful to Animals?
Bubbles should not be harmful to animals in small doses.
As mentioned earlier, the main ingredient is water, and the amounts of other compounds are limited.
So, for example, your dog eating a few bubbles is not the same as licking up dish soap.
With that said, ensure your pets do not drink bubble solution, as this can be quite a large dose.
Animals may experience stomach discomfort and nausea if they consume a lot of bubbles.
If you’re concerned, there’s no harm in going to the vet.
4. Are Bubbles Bad for Humans?
Bubbles are not harmful to humans in small doses.
Since bubbles are targeted at children, many commercial brands will seek out non-toxic ingredients.
Kids who consume bubbles may feel nauseous or experience stomach upset.
Bubbles will also cause irritation if they get into your eyes.
If your child consumes a lot of bubble liquid, it’s best to consult a medical professional on how to proceed.
5. Can You Make Eco-Friendly Bubbles?
The more sustainable thing is to make bubbles yourself and reuse a bubble wand.
You can stick to simple ingredients like water, eco-friendly dish soap, and glycerin without the need for any additional ingredients like preservatives or stabilizers.
It’s not clear if zero-waste dish soap blocks are also suitable for making bubbles as these are mostly made up of coconut oil and essential oils, so they are likely too thick for bubbles.
While some ingredients in conventional dish soap are bad for the environment, they are already somewhat diluted in the dish soap.
They are diluted even further in the bubble mixture, so their environmental impact is significantly reduced.
However, there are liquid dish soaps made from non-toxic ingredients, which should provide similar, if not the same, results as regular dish soap.