Balloons are a party staple like no other. So much so that most would have a pretty hard time imagining a kid’s party, a birthday or any celebration really without a balloon in sight!
While using colourful balloons for decorating and celebrating is almost a given, knowing more about their environmental impact might be just enough to put party lovers off balloons for good.
Balloons are certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of unsustainable everyday items, but when you take a look they are anything but eco-friendly.
So, what exactly is the problem with traditional balloons and what are the eco alternatives to liven up your party without harming the environment in the process?
Here’s all you need to know about eco-friendly balloons, including the most popular (and controversial) type: biodegradable balloons.
What’s the problem with traditional balloons anyway?
First things first, let’s take a look at how traditional balloons are made.
There are two main material types that manufacturers use to make balloons:
While latex is considered the classic material for most balloons, you’re also likely to come across mylar, specifically when shopping for helium balloons.
Mylar is a polyester film that’s known for its flexibility and tensile strength, making it the perfect material for a balloon that won’t pop as it is filled with helium (or your breath!).
The material is quite similar to aluminium foil, only much more flexible and stretchable.
As a plastic product, mylar is made from non-renewable sources. As you know, the extraction of fossil fuels is in large part to blame for our planet’s increasing GHG emissions.
This isn’t to mention what the mylar balloons are filled with, helium, which is not a renewable resource either!
Unsurprisingly, mylar balloons (usually referred to as foil balloons) are far from the most eco-friendly balloon option out there.
However, when shopping for balloons, you’ll be able to spot the ones made with mylar easily and likely opt for the most common option instead – latex balloons.
Latex is a natural material derived from the bark of rubber trees, known for its incredible strength and versatility. You can read all about whether rubber is bad for the environment here.
But while natural latex can be considered a sustainable material, not all the latex you’ll find in common products is of natural origins — synthetic latex (neoprene), made from fossil fuels, is a lot cheaper to produce.
So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that many balloons you’ll find on the market are made from a mixture of both synthetic and natural latex!
What are biodegradable balloons?
Balloons made from a blend of neoprene and natural latex cannot be recycled by the vast majority of recycling facilities.
This isn’t because the materials used are not recyclable per se, but because there is virtually no benefit for recycling balloons as they cannot create new products.
Foil balloons, on the other hand, are much easier to recycle, as mylar can be repurposed to create a variety of useful products.
The truth is that traditional balloons are designed to be single-use.
But what about biodegradable balloons?
Biodegradable balloons are made from 100% natural latex that can degrade naturally just like a piece of tree bark would.
While it sounds very promising, the marketing claims for biodegradable balloons are not without controversy.
Natural latex rubber makes for the main material used to create biodegradable balloons, but that doesn’t mean that other chemicals are not added during their production.
Are biodegradable balloons safe for the environment?
Between plasticisers, preservatives, fire retardants and anti-fogging agents, biodegradable balloons are really anything but natural.
Even worse, their biodegradable capabilities don’t live up to the marketing claims, which means that biodegradable balloons are not very good for the environment.
Many biodegradable balloons have been found to not meaningfully degrade after 16 weeks of composting. This is despite the fact that composting standards require biodegradable materials to fully disintegrate after 12 weeks. This is true for items such as compostable bags.
On top of that, the carbon footprint of production and landfill pollution is not the only environmental concern surrounding both traditional and biodegradable balloons.
Balloons of any kind also constitute a wildlife hazard, as they can travel far distances when released and end up polluting natural habitats once deflated.
A discarded balloon can easily be ingested by both land and marine animals, causing suffocation, contamination of nutrient sources and even starvation.
So, whether you’re buying biodegradable balloons or traditional ones, make sure you never release them outdoors to float away and eventually land wherever they come down as they are not considered safe for the environment.
The best eco-friendly balloon alternatives
So, is there no such thing as eco-friendly balloons?
All the research around biodegradable balloons seem to confirm that they aren’t eco friendly. And while mylar foil balloons are easily recyclable, they won’t solve our plastic problem either.
All balloons are designed to be a single-use product, and while we are definitely waiting for eco-conscious manufacturers to create a truly biodegradable, environmentally-friendly balloon prototype, eco balloons are still far from our reach.
But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on celebrating important milestones with fun decorations and a bit of biodegradable confetti!
3 most sustainable balloon alternatives
1. Streamers and paper chains
Paper chains and streamers can be hung around your home or venue to liven up the decor in all sorts of creative ways.
Paper decorations like chains and streamers can be bought, or even better, DIY’d to make your party decor even more sustainable. Not only is paper naturally biodegradable but it’s also recyclable and compostable depending on the type of paper used.
If you choose to make your own paper chains and streamers, you’ll be able to entertain your whole family and add a dash of creativity to your celebration!
2. Bunting and banners
Traditional bunting can also be used to replace the fun of balloons without using any plastic. Fabric banners and flags can easily be made out of old clothing or cloth material to reduce waste.
Just like homemade paper chains, creating fabric bunting at home can make for a fun activity for the whole family, so don’t be afraid to get creative with patterns and strings!
Finally, if you’re missing the fun of floating balloons and want to create party decoration that’ll look incredible in a picture, why not go back to a childhood favourite by blowing some bubbles?
While blowing bubbles will create a small amount of soap residue, they will disappear after a short while leaving no environmental trace!
Just make sure you’re using an eco-friendly bubble solution or creating the perfect eco-friendly and low-waste formula yourself — a dash of washing up liquid and honey can go a long way.
Items such as sky lanterns could be seen as a good eco-friendly balloon alternative, but they are not.
For a variety of reasons, sky lanterns aren’t good for the environment. Although the paper will break down, they contain a wire mesh and are essentially a floating fire ball – they’ve been linked to many fires and animal deaths.
So, instead of releasing balloons into the environment to land and litter wherever they please with plastic waste, maybe try some of these eco-friendly balloon alternatives.
If you’re set on having blow up balloons, then the best eco-friendly option is to go for 100% natural latex or the foil balloons that can be recycled.