Here's What Really Happens When You Let Go Of A Balloon

“People are turning the environment into a landfill, and it’s mainly the animals who are being harmed.”

On Thursday morning, Justin Williams, a patrol member with the Turtle Island Restoration Network, was walking on the shores of Surfside, Texas, when he noticed something lying still right at the ocean’s edge.

Williams moved closer, and realized it was a young Kemp’s ridley sea turtle — with a thick clump of tangled balloon strings wrapped around her neck. A deflated red balloon was still attached.

“[She was] pretty wore out,” Williams told The Dodo. “Sadly, there were quite a few balloons out there on the beach ... I also found a dead pelican wrapped in them.”

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The sea turtle with the debris | Justin Williams

Williams jumped into action to cut the strings and rushed the exhausted animal to a local turtle rescue center. She’s expected to survive, but will always bear the ring of scars on her neck that had formed after being tangled for what was likely years.

Unfortunately, this turtle is just one of many animals to fall victim to this unique type of litter. Commonly released into the air during celebrations, balloons and their fragments are making their ways into oceans — and hurting or killing marine animals in the process.

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A bird caught in a balloon in the UK | Balloons Blow/David Steely

A recent report from Ocean Conservancy has ranked balloons as one of the top three deadliest forms of litter, only behind discarded fishing nets and plastic bags.

That’s because when balloons burst, the fragments can look very similar to jellyfish or other prey that animals like sea turtles eat. The ribbons can also become wrapped around animals as they swim in the water, which may hinder their ability to move or eat freely.

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A latex balloon fragment washed up on a beach in Florida | Balloons Blow

“It’s not uncommon for sea turtles to be found emaciated, sick or dead, only to find out later after X-rays or a necropsy that they’ve ingested a balloon,” Nick Mallos, Trash Free Seas program director for Ocean Conservancy, told The Dodo. “Fragments or even balloons with the ribbons still attached have been found in their GI tracts.”

Even if balloons are released far away from oceans or waterways, they often still end up there, Mallos said. They can also become tangled in trees, where they can entangle birds and other forest-dwelling animals.

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After eating a discarded balloon, a sea turtle passes the ribbon. | Clearwater Marine Aquarium

“Balloons have been found to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles,” Mallos said. “There have even been reports of balloons released in the UK ending up in Australia and Hong Kong. People’s intentions may be to celebrate something, but it’s really a point of pollution.”

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A bird found tangled in a balloon in Australia | Balloons Blow/Marina DeBris

Danielle Vosburgh, founder of South Florida-based nonprofit Balloons Blow, has advocated against balloon releases for years due to the risks they pose to wildlife. She often mediates with companies across the country who have planned balloon releases to help them find other alternatives.

She has also spent the past 20 years cleaning garbage from the shores in Jensen Beach, Florida. In 2013 alone, she collected over 1,500 latex and mylar balloons that had washed up.

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Danielle Vosburgh and her sister showing off just six months' worth of balloons they've collected from South Florida Beaches | Balloons Blow

“The balloon industry markets them as being biodegradable, but they aren’t,” Vosburgh told The Dodo. “It’s the only industry that encourages people to litter with their product — and once it happens, those balloons last a very long time.”

To test how long a discarded balloon can remain in an environment once it deflates, Vosburgh tied one up to a tree near her home over six years ago. Despite the Florida heat and intense tropical storms, the balloon is still intact today.

“Our garbage shouldn’t outlive us,” Vosburgh said. “People are turning the environment into a landfill, and it’s mainly the animals who are being harmed.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just private residents responsible for balloon releases. Clemson University, in South Carolina, for example, releases hundreds of latex balloons into the air at the start of each home football game.

However, some towns across the U.S. have already recognized the long-lasting impacts balloons have on animals and the environment, and have banned the sale and release of balloons altogether.

Luckily, Vosburgh has noticed that more and more people are becoming educated about the long-lasting effects of balloons — which can only mean good things for the animals.

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Balloons Blow/Pam Bedsole

Like Vosburgh, Mallos suggests looking into eco-friendly, reusable alternatives to phase out the use of balloons altogether, like streamers or banners.

“There are plenty of sustainable alternatives to balloons,” Mallos said. “If you’re looking for that same orb-like effect, try paper honeycomb-shaped spheres instead. They serve almost the same purpose, but they can be saved and reused — and biodegrade pretty quickly if they do happen to get loose.”

To help keep animals safe from balloons and other dangerous trash, you can make a donation to Ocean Conservancy and Balloons Blow. You can also pledge to educate others about the long-lasting impacts on animals and the environment.