With current “big issue” blows hitting our environment both north and south (dredging spoils in the Great Barrier Reef, winding back Tasmania’s World Heritage areas), talking about litter may appear trivial. Yet our planet suffers from the cumulative effect of discarded waste: items like plastic bags and balloons. And we can do something about it. Some of this waste can be avoided, but it will take awareness, effort, and probably legislation.
Late last year, a petition lodged in the Queensland Legislative Assembly called for a ban on the mass release of helium balloons. Talk about unlucky timing. The story suffocated underneath the silt-like slurry of the week’s big environment story, that Environment Minister Greg Hunt had approved the major expansion of a coal port at Abbot Point. In comparison, balloons seemed beyond trival. The issue didn’t even raise enough hot air to rustle up the usual chorus of “nanny state” calls.
But the balloon release campaign raises an important – if not so eco-dramatic – point about sustainability. Rubbish. Particularly, legitimising litter. What happens when balloons are released? Don’t they just go up, up, and away? Away? There is no “away”. A flock of balloons makes pretty litter. They rise. Some fall to land or sea whole. Others shatter at altitude, and smaller pieces return.
Industry asserts these fragments are benign. The phrase rolling around the Internet sounds like this: “Balloons decompose at the same rate as an oak leaf.” The balloon lobby has been enlightening local councils with this nugget since the late-1980s, when this “oak leaf” study was commissioned. (By Du Pont.) A researcher dried balloon pieces then left them outside, in earth and in water, for six weeks. The balloons did not decompose completely by the end of the study: they broke into smaller pieces.
Last year, at the University of Queensland Moreton Bay Research Station on Stradbroke Island, I observed Honours student Lauren Roman conduct necropsies on seabirds found dead along the coasts of Queensland and northern NSW. These birds showed signs of malnutrition. All had plastic fragments in their stomachs. Some contained pieces of balloon. One shearwater’s gut was so full of balloon fragments they had backed up its esophagus. I do not doubt that this bird starved to death because its stomach was stuffed with fragments of latex balloon, leaving no space for real nourishment.
Balloon debris is deadly litter.
But hang on. My kids have a right to fun and wonder. My loved ones have a right to celebrate my life by releasing latex helium-filled balloons at my funeral. Banning balloons? That’s demonising the universal symbol for “party”. What’s next for the fun police? Face painting?
Understandably, the Balloon Artists and Suppliers Association (BASA) rejects calls for a balloon release ban. BASA’s Queensland president Gunter Blum believes a ban would affect “a thousand (balloon) suppliers in Queensland.”
It’s not about the actual ban, he adds, rather a knock-on “perception that helium balloons are bad.” BASA wants to do the right thing. Their guidelines encourage responsible releases: no plastic ties, degradable string. They also want to sell balloons.
Addressing the petition, Environment Minister Andrew Powell acknowledged balloons “have potential to create an environmental impact… (particularly) in the marine environment where they may be eaten by turtles and other animals.” Powell’s position is that a ban is not the best way to address this, preferring to invest in “education and awareness, along with partnerships with industry sectors and peak bodies such as the Balloon Artists and Suppliers Association” as the most effective way to reduce balloon litter. However, Blum concedes that, at 26 members, BASA does not have the ears of the large majority of balloon suppliers. With such low industry representation, the government would not be dealing with the majority of balloon sellers.
Keep Queensland Beautiful CEO Rick Burnett believes this is a litter issue. “Helium balloons are litter about to happen,” he says. “Litter is an environmental problem that is growing with population growth and lack of awareness. Helium balloons are one of many forms of litter.” New South Wales banned releases of more than 20 balloons years ago. So has the Sunshine Coast Regional Council, due to concern about the impact of balloon debris in the marine environment.
Superfluous regulation is this government’s avowed bête noir. (Unless, of course, you’re a bikie.) The Environment Minister doesn’t want a ban. Yet legitimising the mass release of helium balloons by NOT banning them gives a covert message to the public that it’s ok to litter.
Balloons are not bad. Letting them go is.
I’d extend a ban to halt handing out free helium balloons for any public promotion. Did anyone who attended last year’s Ekka count the number of escaped LNP balloons rising skyward? I gave up at 50. Where did that litter all go? Even BASA concedes that balloons escape. Of 1500 balloons they handed out a recent tunnel launch, Blum counted 113 on the roof of the tunnel a couple of hours later. Lucky the tunnel had a roof.
Releasing helium balloons is littering. We prosecute other forms of littering. Why legitimise this shiny one? Caroline Gardam is a Queensland writer and ethical marketer. Last year, she worked with Queensland Conservation to launch the Plastic Bag Free Queensland campaign.