By Simone Delochan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Balloons are ubiquitous. Wedding receptions, birthday parties, church events: no celebration seems complete unless there are the multi-coloured, air-filled, receptacles of joy. Nothing appears more peaceful or moving than seeing released balloons waft gently up. Except, if you really think about it, they must come down somewhere and what happens then?
Balloons are terrible for the environment. There has been discussion on this in a few spheres but it seems not to have impacted on balloon usage, and some local churches have created rosaries out of helium-filled balloons. One church then released the balloons.
In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes: “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her water.” (2)
Balloons may seem a small matter, but what is evident is that decades of neglect, ignorance and the accumulation of ‘little acts’ have resulted in the present state of the planet. So what then makes balloons dangerous to the planet?
Research would immediately focus on two areas: litter and the hazard to wildlife. According to the website, onegreenearth, an estimated 70 per cent of balloons end up in the sea. A biologist writing into the New York Times had this to say: “I was the biologist who conducted a post-mortem on a leatherback turtle in 1987 and found a single latex balloon lodged in the pyloric valve. Physiological evidence indicated the animal starved to death because of digestive tract blockage.”1
Turtles, in particular, are attracted to deflated balloons because they resemble jellyfish, but other marine life is affected: sea lions, dolphins, whales and fish. Examples of all have been found with ingested balloons and had slowly starved to death because the balloons blocked their digestive tracts. Birds are impacted, as well as domestic pets, cows, and sheep, again through ingestion.
Animals can also become entangled in the string or ribbon attached to balloons, again leading to death. “Flippers and fins of sea turtles, seals and dolphins can also become wrapped in string, causing infections, amputations and/or death by drowning” (www.onegreenplanet.org).2
Biodegradable (latex) balloons may seem to be the safe alternative, however, these balloons take six months to four years to decompose. Imagine what can happen during this period. In sea water: “latex balloons float for just 10 hours, but can take a year or more to degrade, long enough to repeatedly wrap around or be ingested by turtles, sea birds and marine mammals” (www.encenter.org)3. And of course, what are the ends of these biodegradable balloons tied with? Ribbon or string.
Why should we care? Because not to care has negative repercussions for all. Respect and love for nature has its roots in early Catholicism: think specifically of St Francis of Assisi. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis uses him as inspiration: “What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world (Rom 1:20)” (11).
Within the community we can be creative and think of other things that are more responsible and show respect to this earth which sustains us and other lifeforms. It’s been said before: plant trees if you want to honour God and Mary; be creative; use organic material that will give back and not destroy and that will, perhaps, have a richer symbolism. Let us love the earth as we love ourselves.
And for your own edification do online research using the keywords ‘balloons’ and ‘environment’. See what comes up.