THE DARK SIDE OF...BALLOONS?

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Submitted Date 03/10/2019
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When I was in elementary school, our class did something that, for obvious reasons, kids would never be encouraged to do today. We filled out note cards with our names and addresses. Then, we laminated them, punched holes in the corners, and tied them to the strings of helium-filled balloons. All of us gathered in the playground, counted down, and then simultaneously released our balloons into the air. It was an uplifting sight. I was one of the few lucky kids who’s card was later found and I received a letter from a stranger shortly after. My card’s discoverer was a little old lady. Her letter made me feel pretty special.

For most of my life, I think my relationship with these colorful dirigibles has been pretty standard. Whenever a birthday would come around, a coworker was in the hospital, or I needed a last-minute Valentine’s Day gift, it was off to the store to pick up some shiny new balloons. As I got older, I gradually lost interest and didn’t really think about them much. But, in 2017, my apathy for inflatables gave way to disgust.

In January of that year, I began living on a private island off the coast of Georgia. The beaches were amazing; golden sand, rare shorebirds, cool Atlantic water, and not a single person as far as the eye could see. Jogging by the oceanside became my new favorite way to spend the day after work. Except for the oysters and the occasional stranded buoy, there wasn’t much to disturb the smooth expanse of sand. That was, until the end of February.

That’s when they started washing ashore, getting tangled in the driftwood, deflated and crusted with sand. Valentine’s Day balloons in pinks and reds, with white ribbons, still attached were coming aboard the island. Even though they’d started as cheerful greetings, they ended as gross plastic waste littering the beach. My housemates and I gathered them and shook the sand away. Even though none of us had bought them (there were no stores on the island), we had to clean them up. The current had brought them from the islands north of us.

It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered plastic waste on a beach. I’d been seeing disposable razors and plastic tampon applicators on beaches all over the world. That had encouraged me to stop using both. But, it was the first time I’d seen so much on a relatively uninhabited island. I started thinking about what happens to the things I throw away and how they live on long after they’ve been picked up by the garbage truck.

It was the end of balloons for me. Swallowed by sea turtles, entangling fish and birds, even reportedly causing power outages; balloons really suck. One day, after I'd moved back from the island, I wandered into my neighborhood party supply store, seeking costume ideas. I was shocked to see the entire expanse of checkout counters covered with balloons. For some reason, I thought the rest of the world had come to the same realization that I did when I did. An absurd thought, I know.

The interesting thing is, so many of the places that sell balloons also sell more eco-friendly items. Flowers can be found right beside the balloons in most grocery stores. How about soap bubbles or sparklers? I will admit that I don’t live a completely plastic-free lifestyle. It’s nearly impossible. Plastics have a lot of great uses, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think balloons are one of them. I may not have cut out all plastics from my life, but I do my best to eliminate the unnecessary ones. Balloons certainly fall into that category. They only last a couple of days anyway, before they sag pathetically to the ground, whether that’s inside an apartment or over the ocean.

*Photo by Ria Tan via Flickr

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