Bursting the Bio-Balloon Myth

Monday, Aug 24, 2020

New research conducted by Marine Science researchers at the University of Tasmania has revealed the truth behind “biodegradable” balloons. The paper, titled Latex balloons do not degrade uniformly in freshwater, marine and composting environments, was released this week in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, and presents evidence that natural latex balloons do not decompose.

The research concluded balloons labelled “100% biodegradable” and “100% natural latex rubber” do not degrade, but actually act like plastics in the environment. Following four months of freshwater, saltwater, and industrial composting tests, the research determined that “bio” balloons retained their original size, shape and even some of their colour. This, the paper says, poses ongoing threats to animals and marine environments, as balloons continue to leach chemicals like dyes, anti-fogging elements, and flame retardants.

Co-author of the paper and founder of Adrift Lab Dr. Jennifer Lavers said in a statement that the manufacturing process of biodegradable balloons is complex and unnatural.“Latex balloons are often marketed as biodegradable because latex is a natural product, but the manufacturing process adds many other chemicals and compounds,” she said.

“To create high-quality, long-lasting balloons, latex needs to be vulcanised with sulphur and compounds such as heavy metals, plasticizers, flame retardants and pigments are added to it.” Dr. Lavers said she hopes the research will create meaningful change within balloon manufacturing.

“We hope that our research will inform the development of latex balloons that degrade within acceptable composting guidelines,” she said.

Read more about the new research in The Conversation

Sea Shepherd volunteers often witness balloon debris first-hand. Volunteers record balloons in the Australia-wide clean-up data in most instances, says Sea Shepherd National Remote Marine Debris Coordinator Liza Dicks.

“It is more usual than not that we find balloons at clean-ups. Sometimes we even collect a jar’s worth of them at beach cleans.”

- Marine Debris Campaigner, Liza Dicks
Balloons found during a marine debris clean-up

Balloons are an especially menacing polluter. Unlike some hard plastics, balloons are lightweight, can travel long distances, and are easily mistakable for natural food sources like jellyfish. Seabirds and turtles are among the most at-risk of balloon ingestion, along with whales and dolphins. The tough, stretchy and sticky nature of latex balloons, including natural latex, makes digestion near impossible for smaller animals, often getting caught in their airways or digestive tracts. Suffocation and asphyxiation from balloon digestion cause a slow and painful death for any animal.

Releasing balloons at celebrations are still a common practice around Australia. Liza says that Sea Shepherd Marine Debris teams often happen across people releasing balloons during our beach clean-ups. “On several occasions we have seen releases at the beach. Over the years we have also managed to persuade some event promoters that were planning to release balloons not to do so in the interest of the protecting the environment and marine life,” she says. 

Sea Shepherd Australia calls on all local governments to make balloon releases illegal under each state’s respective Litter Acts. With animals and environments in mind, Sea Shepherd urges prospective balloon-purchasers to rethink their consumer behaviours. Labels like “biodegradable” and “natural latex rubber” are unsubstantiated and are proven to be as deadly as “normal” balloons. In order to protect the environment, we must reject balloons as a celebratory decoration, and opt for cleaner, greener, more friendly alternatives.

Sea Shepherd Australia's Marine Debris Campaign drives community-change through education and beach clean-ups Australia-wide. Getting involved in ocean-saving direct action is as easy as picking up rubbish when you see it, disposing of your waste correctly, and minimising your footprint. Join a beach clean-up near you today. Every piece counts, even those claimed “bio”-balloons.

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