An overview of latex balloons, how they are manufactured and how mass balloon releases affect the environment
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Are mass balloon releases a danger to the environment?
Balloons - in one form or another - have been around for centuries. But the modern latex balloon - the kind you can blow up yourself - was invented only a little more than 70 years ago in New England, USA. A chemical engineer, frustrated in his attempts to make inner tubes from this new product - liquid latex - shaped a cat's head from a piece of cardboard and dipped it in the latex. When it dried, Neil Tillotson had a 'cat balloon' complete with ears. He made about 2 000 balloons and sold them on the street during Boston's annual Patriot Day parade. Latex balloons are still made from dipping forms into latex, but the process is now mechanised.
Early balloons were made from pig bladders and later from a rubber similar to that used to make gum boots. Today's latex balloons are 100 per cent natural - they are made from a milky substance from rubber trees. Latex balloons are not made from plastic.
In the late 1970's, silver metallised balloons were developed for the New York City Ballet. These balloons are commonly called mylar, but they are actually made from a metallised nylon and are more expensive than latex balloons.
Today, balloons are floating greeting cards. Almost 80% are used to deliver messages - from "Happy Birthday" to a proud "Mum, you're the best".
Latex balloons are produced from the milky sap of the rubber tree, Hevea brasillensis. The rubber tree originated in the tropical forests of South America and was taken to Europe from Brazil - hence the Latin name. It is now grown on plantations in many tropical countries. The latex is collected in buckets, as it drips from harmless cuts in the bark. The process is much like that used to collect maple syrup. The use of latex balloons and other products, such as surgical gloves and condoms, make rubber trees economically valuable, which discourages people from cutting them down and provides a valuable revenue to many third world countries.
Latex is a 100 per cent natural substance that breaks down both in sunlight and water and should never be confused with plastic. The degradation process begins almost immediately after a balloon is manufactured. Oxidation, the "frosting" that makes latex balloons look as if they are losing their colour, is one of the first signs of the process. Exposure to sunlight quickens the process, but natural microorganisms attack natural rubber, even in the dark.
Research shows that under similar environmental conditions, latex balloons will biodegrade at about the same rate as a leaf from an oak tree. The actual total degradation time will vary depending on the precise conditions.
To read the full report on this research please visit www.balloonhq.com/faq/deco_releases/release_study.html.
SAVING THE RAINFORESTS
Rubber trees, from which the latex for balloons is harvested, are one of the main forms of vegetation in tropical rain forests, which in recent years have become crucial to maintaining the earth's fragile ecological balance. Harvesting latex can be more profitable to poor third world nations than raising cattle on the deforested land.
Even when the trees producing latex for balloon manufacturing grow on plantations instead of in rain forests, they help the ecosystem, as the natural biology of the trees helps maintain our atmosphere and protect the ozone layer. The demand for latex balloons actually is a huge contributor to a more positive environment in which global warming is increasingly worrying scientists and environmentalists. The balloon industry worldwide requires the latex from 16-million rubber trees that, in total, take up more than 363-million kilograms of CO2 gases annually from the earth's atmosphere.
WHAT HAPPEN TO BALLOONS THAT FLY?
After a helium-filled balloon is released, it rises through the atmosphere at a little under two metres per second. Both atmospheric pressure and temperature drop as altitude increases.
The balloon rises to a height of about 28,000 feet (about 8.4 kilometres) over a period of about 90 minutes. At that altitude the temperature is about 40 degrees C below zero and the balloon has expanded to reach its elastic limit. A 27-centimetre balloon elongates, on average, to about 700% of its original, uninflated, size before bursting.
Under these high altitude conditions, the balloon actually shatters and undergoes what is called a "brittle fracture". The resulting pieces of rubber are about the size of a ten or twenty-cent piece and these float back to earth and are scatted over a wide area.
The vast majority of balloons will have this fate.
THE LITTLE FACTOR-BALLOONS AFTER BURSTING
It's at this point, a balloon completes the last part of its life cycle. The rubber pieces continue to biodegrade (a process which begins, incidentally, from the moment a balloon is manufactured) until it has totally disappeared.
The time taken varies, but on average, the process of decay for latex runs at about the same speed as that of an oak leaf after Autumn (tests conducted using American conditions).
A helium-filled balloon which has shattered at altitude will biodegrade much faster than a whole balloon which is simply disposed of in landfill waste. However, no matter what the environment, a latex balloon decays from the moment its manufacture is completed.
BALLOONS THAT DON'T BURST
An American study estimated that well under five per cent of balloons released will not rise high enough to rupture.
However, even assuming a less conservative estimate of 10%, the density of balloons on the ground after a mass release would be fewer than one balloon in more 38 square kilometres for every 500 balloons released.
BALLOONS AND WILDLIFE
There is simply no basis for any fear that animals and fish are consuming either whole balloons or pieces of latex rubber from mass release balloons, or that balloons are having an adverse effect on wildlife.
BASA makes this claim on the basis of:
- Extensive US studies which fail to show any link
- Lack of any evidence from Australian fishermen that they ever find mass-release balloons, or balloon remnants, in fish that have been caught;
- No observed balloon litter in any environment which is carefully monitored by Government authorities – e.g. national parks, marine parks, forests, harbours and foreshores;
- Surveys by oceanic countries which show no balloon or latex rubber debris in litter surveys following mass releases in Australia;
- Observations from widely-scattered observers involved in the www.balloonhq.com/faq/deco_releases/release_study.html "Keep Australia Beautiful" programs; and
- Controlled monitoring and tracking of multi-balloon releases for the purpose of measuring any litter problem.
To read the full report on this research please visit www.balloonhq.com/faq/deco_releases/release_study.html
The balloon industry is aware of its social obligations and has an obligation to ensure that retailers and consumers are aware of the best use of the product. BASA works to educate all those who enjoy working with or use balloons.