revised May 6th 2012
In 2004 for my daughter's birthday party we released twelve balloons with postage tags from our back garden.
Amazingly, a few days later a tag was returned to us from Billy Sur Oisy, a small mountainous village in the middle of France, 544 km away. To foster international relations, we sent the finder ten euros reward and a copy of our village newsletter.
I contacted the Met Office to ask if that was in any way unusual and was told that the air currents that weekend had kept the balloon's altitude low and allowed it to travel so far. Under ideal conditions, a 12 inch latex balloon will rise to about 5 km altitude and burst, usually within an hour of release.
Now I have come to the realisation we shouldn't have done this. At first I thought only mylar balloons were hazardous. They can bring down power lines and they don't degrade but I have since learned that latex balloons are hazardous to wildlife as well, because sea birds, basking sharks and turtles swallow them thinking they are food.
Now I am appalled when I see a massed balloon release, such as at sporting events and the recent opening of the Olympic Stadium in London. I hate to be a spoilsport but I also won’t buy helium balloons for my children any more. Helium is a finite resource that is extracted from the ground. We can't make it synthetically and once it's released into the atmosphere; it's gone; leaking eventually into outer space. It has taken the earth 4.7 billion years to create all our helium but we could use it all in a 100 years.
Very often balloon releases accompany fundraising for good causes or are launched in memory of someone who has died. The most heartbreaking are the children who are victims of cancer and other diseases. We commemorated my late sister after she died in a accident this way, so I fully understand the feelings of those that do this. I am reluctant to contact organisers of memorial releases to advise them their actions are are compounding the tragedy but each memorial release only gives further credibility to the misguided but widely held belief that balloon releases are harmless.
A good deal of PR goes into claims that a latex balloon will burst into small pieces and then degrade in the environment "as fast as an oak leaf" though this research was originally published by the Latex Rubber Institute of Malaysia and that headline rate actually takes years in the cold salt water off Britain, enough time for a seabird or turtle to swallow a balloon. Not all released balloons burst nor break into small fragments. My local paper delights in reporting that balloons launched from East Anglia turn up deflated but intact in Scandinavian forests. The strings tied to them are a separate and even more lethal hazard. Fundraising balloons have also killed cattle and resulted in hefty compensation claims from those responsible.
|Artist Fran Crowe picked up all this balloon litter on a Suffolk beach.|
The National Farmers Union have previously campaigned against balloon releases, stating: "When the balloons land in grass fields they might be eaten by grazing livestock or contaminate hay, again with the risk of being swallowed by livestock when they eat the hay. Balloons are just another form of litter, making the countryside look untidy."
The amount of balloon litter found on beaches has been increasing. The Policy Paper on Balloon Litter by Keep Wales Tidy is perhaps the most detailed analysis of the subject and it refutes the arguments of the balloon industry.
Many fast food restaurant chains and supermarkets claim their packaging and bags are biodegradable but none would posit it is acceptable to scatter them at random in the environment, so the balloon industry's position is quite absurd.
Several states in the USA and in Australia have banned the release of any kind of helium balloons. One commentator says "balloon releases are littering. Organised balloon releases are organised littering."
The UK Marine Conservation Agency has called for a ban. Its website has a leaflet to inform event organisers and a link for you to report announced releases.
Keep Scotland Tidy reckon balloon and flying lantern releases, with their potential for creating litter, could actually be interpreted as an offence under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to drop "or otherwise deposit" litter in a public place. With this in mind, it is asking Scotland’s local councils to ban balloon and flying lantern releases from premises within their control, including all school buildings, and consider entering a new condition on entertainment licenses to prevent balloon and flying lantern releases.
Some progress is being made. The RSPCA have stepped in to advise event organisers about the dangers when they've had enough time. But in the same week, 22 nursery schools - which should be mindful of the impression this makes on young people - released balloons for wounded soldiers.
So far the response by various authorities to my complaints about balloon releases has been ostrich-like. After I complained about this release to the police in North Yorkshire, on the basis that it was indistinguishable from littering, I was referred to Scarborough Borough Council as the "enforcing authority" for littering. Subsequently Harry Briggs, Recycling And Waste Enforcement Manager for Scarborough Borough Council, suggested I write to the newspapers to complain. Perhaps they fear the public's false belief that balloon releases are harmless. A former member of a county council recounted to me their experience of a campaign started by the local press piling scorn on them for being a "spoilsport" when they proposed to legislate a ban on balloon releases.
With millions of balloons sold every year, education and codes of practice alone won't prevent the needless deaths and the continued pollution of both our environment AND our attitudes to conservation.
I think that until a judge can give a ruling that a balloon release is not littering or in any way harmful, and therefore legal, the reporting of deliberate releases as an act of littering or fly-tipping is the only way to ensure the authorities will focus on this problem. Therefore I have reported Lord Coe to the Metropolitan Police for his wilful act of littering on May 5th 2012 which was witnessed by 40,000 spectators in the vicinity of E20 2ST at around 9 pm. The Metropolitan Police's confirmation number is MPS CR03-00049452.
If you witnessed this crime, perhaps on television, or see another celebrity or other people committing the same acts of wilful littering, then I suggest you report it too.
Postscript: The Metropolitan Police have responded to my online notification:
The LOCOG website has a FAQ of over 140 pages to trawl through without any obvious pointers to their contact details and it has not responded to several twitter requests via the official @london2012 to discuss this.
I tried and failed at using Newham council's website to report fly tipping and littering as their website doesn't recognise my home address in their database. Presumeably because I am resident outside the borough.
You can search for the hashtag #balloonrelease to get the story and updates on twitter.
Thinking of organising a balloon release? Please read this.