What Goes Up Will Come Down – Know the Facts and Laws About Balloon Releases

May 22, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

There’s a place in Maryland where I sometimes go to photograph. It’s a stunning and large public garden, meticulously cared for, visited, and appreciated by many.  Along with its beauty, I regularly see balloons and string caught up in the trees around this picture-perfect place. I was even surprised one day last spring when I witnessed a small group releasing several plain, white, Mylar balloons at the garden. The tears in their eyes told me they may have been memorializing a loved one.  Death and loss are sad, but my heart also ached when I thought about the litter they released and the potential harm to birds and other animals their actions created.  


Why Are We Still Littering with Balloons?

Every once in a while, a single balloon accidentally gets loose. A child gets distracted, loses their grip, or a single balloon somehow escapes from a party. That’s a different issue than the intentional balloon releases that have been happening for years. These intentional releases are often done as part of fundraisers, sporting events, weddings, graduations, other ceremonies, birthdays and to recognize the death of a loved one. Some people see balloon releases as having religious or spiritual significance. And there are businesses that actively promote, and sell, balloon releases (http://www.celebratewithballoons.com/FuneralBalloons.html). One business refers to balloon releases as a “growing trend”, stating, “Releases are normally done at the end of the service to symbolize letting go of the loved one and letting the grieving process begin. …As the balloons are slowly drifting upward it leaves all involved with a peace and a memory that will last a lifetime.”  Those can be powerful words and promises when people are emotionally vulnerable and grieving.


Putting the Brakes on Balloon Releases: Know the Facts and Laws

Balloon releases have started to lose their popularity and acceptance. There are well-documented harms caused by balloon debris, including death and serious injuries to wildlife as well as the unnecessary litter they produce. There have been debates about the extent of damage from balloons, and what kinds of balloons are most harmful; for example – helium vs. latex vs. Mylar; and balloons with and without strings. Some businesses have caught on to the declining acceptance of balloon releases and now sell, manufacture or promote balloons labeled as compostable or biodegradable. The valid question about those products is how long and under what environmental conditions do they degrade?  For example, do they degrade when they land in open bodies of water, or do they float forever, and never degrade, risking injury or death to sea life? The same question needs to be asked when balloons labeled biodegradable land, on land, – how long does it take for them to degrade?


Some of the injuries and other damage that’s occurred because of balloon releases is staggering.


  • A balloon release in 1986 by the charity United Way Services of Cleveland, in Ohio was a fund-raising attempt to break the world record for the number of balloons in a single release. One-and-a-half million balloons were released. However, an approaching weather front caused them to return to earth, covering the city in balloons, causing cars to crash, and hindering a coast guard rescue mission. It contributed to the deaths of two sailors on Lake Erie (the wife of one victim sued the organizers, and settled out-of-court), resulted in injuries to horses, and caused traffic accidents. A runway at Burke Lakefront Airport had to be closed. The Guinness Book of Records no longer accepts balloon release records. (https://www.cleveland.com/remembers/2011/08/balloonfest_1986_the_spectacle.html)


  • In 2017, a horse in the United Kingdom was killed when a pink helium balloon with a string dropped into the field where the horse swallowed it and began choking. In a panic, the horse bolted across the field and through two gates breaking two legs and her neck.





Change has happened as more of us are educated about the long-lasting effects of balloons. Today, there are several non-profits and other organizations that actively work to educate on the risks from balloon releases and the alternatives available. In addition, the reality that’s emerged from the debates and analysis on the risks of balloon releases has led to a number of state-wide, or locality-based balloon release bans, with legislation pending in others. The U.S. states with balloon release bans include, California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia (see, https://balloonsblow.org/balloon-laws/). The Maryland state legislature has passed balloon ban legislation which is currently waiting for the Governor’s signature. There are also several localities (towns, townships, counties, etc…) that passed balloon release bans. Visit https://balloonsblow.org/balloon-laws/ for a complete list and other excellent resources.



Intentional Balloon Releases are Completely Preventable

Education and facts about the impacts of balloon releases has led to their declining popularity and acceptance.  Even in locations without legal bans, balloon releases have been cancelled or simply not considered based on the facts and knowledge that they’re short-lived feel-good moments, that are also grand-scale littering events.


The non-profit organization, “Balloons Blow,” maintains a list of “Balloon releases averted” (https://balloonsblow.org/balloon-releases-averted/). This list describes actions that the organization has taken, or others have taken, to cancel and avert an intentional balloon release. Here’s a few cases from their website I’d like to highlight:


  • July 2018 - After 35+ years of releasing tens of thousands of balloons at every home football game, Clemson University has finally agreed to end the destructive tradition. Seven years of mass littering alerts, pleading, emails, phone calls, Facebook posts & tweets.  We’re so glad the Clemson football season will no longer include this mass littering event. Much respect to all who spoke up over the years!” (See, https://balloonsblow.org/clemsons-mass-balloon-littering-events/)


  • “January 20, 2017 – Colorado – Balloon releases were planned today at 16 high schools in Jefferson County Colorado for a Day Without Hate event to promote unity. Thankfully, once they learned that their so-called “biodegradable” latex balloons would still become deadly litter in the environment, they altered the event. Much respect to all at Jeffco Public Schools ~ Colorado for altering plans within hours of the event. We are thankful for all those who added their voice. They have come up with some great alternatives... a mass bubble blowing... “bubbles to release your troubles”, & lining the hallways with positive messages.”


  • “January 23, 2017 – West Virginia – The Relay for Life of West Virginia University had planned a balloon release at their event today. Just being alerted last night, we had no time to spare. We posted a polite comment on their Facebook page & sent an email. Within minutes we received a positive reply.”


  • “March 31, 2017 – Illinois – The Montessori Children’s Centre had planned to release balloons for their 20th year celebration. At first, the false marketing of the balloon industry had them believing latex balloons are biodegradable & eco-friendly. Thankfully, our friend Amanda was not afraid to speak up. She sent a polite informative note, warning them of the greenwashing of latex balloons. We sent them a follow-up email & they confirmed no balloons would be released. Much respect to Amanda for taking action & to the school for quickly altering their plans!”


Alternatives to Releasing Balloons

We can avoid the dark side of balloon releases and find easy alternatives that are also safer.  The first alternative is do nothing – yes, nothing. A life with less stuff does not mean a lesser life. Balloon releases, and their alternatives, are not essential for human life.  With that said, there are alternatives to balloon releases that are less harmful to the environment we all share.  See a few alternatives below, and for more on this topic, visit https://balloonsblow.org/environmentally-friendly-alternatives.


  • Plant in remembrance – Plant native flowers or a tree to remember, honor, or celebrate.
  • Build and Install a Bird House – Create a structure for new life.
  • Lighting Candles & Luminaries – On the anniversary of the passing or the birthday of new life, light a candle to remember a loved one.
  • Blowing Bubbles – Blowing bubbles is always fun. Imagine a countless number of bubbles floating away into the sky with a piece of every person that was gathered together.
  • Mass Gathering – Having people come together to create a shape, word, or image can be very unifying and beautiful. Aerial photograph the gathering and share.
  • Sponsor a Bench – Have a sitting bench installed at a park or natural area with the name or organization you wish to honor.
  • Write a message on seed paper and plant it – Seed paper is a kind of paper you can buy or make that’s embedded with seeds. The seeds grow once it’s placed on soil and kept watered. It might have native wildflower seeds, or vegetables, or herbs. Friends and family can write their messages to the deceased on the seed paper. Here’s a recipe for making seed paper, https://climatekids.nasa.gov/seed-paper/ .


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