Had a gutful of helium-filled balloons? – February 2017

Washed-up balloons on a beach. Image © Kevin Redgrave.

Washed-up balloons on a beach. Image © Kevin Redgrave.

Have you had a gutful of helium-filled balloons harming our wildlife? So have our turtles and sea birds.


As the saying goes, ‘what goes up must come down’ and in the case of helium-filled balloons, when they do come down they are usually ruptured or burst, and have strings attached. When they land in the marine environment, the results are obvious. They get mistaken for food by sea turtles and sea birds, leading them to be eaten or cause entanglement.

Dr. Jenn Lavers from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, an expert in marine plastic pollution issues, says, “I find balloons in about one in every 20 seabirds I examine.”

Studies of dead sea turtles found in south-east Queensland between 2006 and 2011 noted that pelagic turtles tended to eat rubber debris, 78 percent of which was balloons. There is also a correlation between the colour of the balloon and what gets eaten most. Red and orange balloons are more regularly found in stomachs as they resemble the red arrow squid, a favoured food source for both shearwaters and turtles.

Helium balloons are usually made from foil or latex and contain plastic. Foil balloons are made from aluminised plastic film and last longer than latex/plastic balloons. They don’t degrade. Proponents of helium balloons argue that latex is a natural product that is biodegradable. However, the US Department of Fisheries and Wildlife estimates that they take as long as one year to decompose.

Research conducted by Dr Kathy Townsend at UQ’s Moreton Bay Research Station on Stradbroke Island indicated that this decomposition rate took much longer when the balloon was floating in salt water. The fact is that these balloons take time to decompose and by the time they do, it’s often too late for the wildlife that has eaten or become entangled in them.

Wildlife Queensland says it’s time to stop the mass release of helium balloons. We recognise the importance of celebrating important moments, and ask that the community be informed regarding the consequences of helium balloons and other ways to mark these occasions. We say that celebrating important moments by releasing helium balloons that harm and kill wildlife is unacceptable and must stop.

For all the reasons outlined above, the State Government and many local councils in Queensland don’t support the release of helium balloons at events they are associated with. New South Wales (and the Sunshine Coast) even has an official ban on their release. And let’s face it, releasing balloons that will end up in waterways or the marine environment is actually a littering offence.

The State Government has released a Discussion Paper (Implementing a lightweight Plastic Shopping bag ban in Queensland) which proposes a ban on single use lightweight plastic bags (including degradable and biodegradable bags). This is a decision that WPSQ has long been campaigning for, and welcomes. The State has also asked what else could be done. This is our opportunity to have our say and include a ban on the mass release of helium-filled balloons, too.

Check out our submission on Implementing a lightweight plastic shopping bag ban in Queensland and add your voice to the campaign now!

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