Letting go of hundreds of balloons is a popular ceremonial tradition at memorials, schools, shopping centres, weddings and many other events. But, while balloons signal festive cheer to us humans, they spell death and destruction to marine life. Every year plastic is the cause of death for at least 100 000 sea creatures, including sea turtles, and over a million seabirds - so for Pledge #14 we’re asking you to ensure that your next celebration isn’t also a death sentence to sealife.

What can I do?

Pledge #14 is simple - ditch those balloons, ditch that cheap plastic junk, and use paper décor, reusable props and added creativity at parties instead:

  • Just say no to balloons as party décor. What better way to teach your kids about the environmental impacts of balloons than by making their birthday parties balloon-free?
  • Choose reusable bunting instead of balloons. Save some cash and make your own - see the video below!
  • Too lazy to make décor yourself? Set up an activity station and let the kids make their own colourful party décor!
  • Get your school to sign a pledge to say no to balloons too. Many school principals are not even aware that balloon releases are illegal in South Africa.
  • Instead of releasing balloons to commemorate an achievement, plant a tree instead. 
  • Considering hiring reusable props for décor, rather than once-off single use props
  • Don't believe the marketing ploy of "biodegradable" or compostable balloons – they create as much damage as any other balloons. If you truly want something balloon-shaped, how about some paper lanterns (please just don't release burning ones over land or sea).

Make your pledge a permanent commitment by leaving an Ocean Pledge.

Why does it matter?

If you think of litter, you probably think of all the plastic etc. that lies discarded on the ground. But a balloon that disappears into the sky is also litter - they don’t just disappear into thin air. Ultimately what goes up, must come down. Whether snagged on electrical poles or ending up on beaches or in the ocean, these colourful orbs often travel across great distances only to pop when they get too high and then they come floating down again as litter.

All these bits of plastic - including entire balloons and the ribbons attached - passed through Bob the turtle. The internal damage, starvation and infection that this plastic caused Bob would have killed him, had he not been lucky enough to be rescued.

The bits of balloon then fall back to the ground and are often mistaken as food by birds and marine animals. Once ingested they can cause internal injury and starvation due to blockages. In the case of sea turtles, all of this can lead to illness which prevents the turtle from diving for its food.  And the strings attached to the balloons can cause entanglement.

To put that in perspective - a seagull-sized bird eating a balloon (2g) would be the equivalent of a human eating 40 plastic shopping bags (5g each). Easily enough to clog you up and lead to starvation.

Other plastic waste associated with parties have their own sets of environmental issues too. We've already touched on polystyrene containers and drinking straws, and many of the cheap plastic décor items associated with parties pose the same issues.

Myth-busting: Biodegradable, mylar and latex balloons are an alternative

This myth needs to be busted once and for all. “Natural latex” balloons do not degrade quickly like the manufacturers claim. Balloons stick around for a long time, irrespective of what material they are made of. And in that time, they can do a lot of damage to many animals that mistake them for food. Latex balloons might not degrade into microplastic like synthetic balloons, but they are still very harmful. Mylar balloons, the ones that look like they are made of foil, are actually made of plastic too -they are nylon with a thin metallic coating. In the environment, they are just as harmful as any other plastic film if released into the environment.

Who can I follow?

The Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation has an incredible turtle rescue programme. Their extensive network includes members from the community and various organisations. Every year sea turtles of various sizes, found along the South African coastline, are rescued, rehabilitated and released once healthy. Sadly, not all of the rescued turtles make it. This is often due to them ingesting marine plastic. Some of these turtles have been found to have pieces of balloons in them, or if they do recover, poop out pieces of balloons and their strings. 

Bob the green turtle is still in rehabilitation, after an infection caused by ingesting plastic balloons and party ribbons affected his brain. He is still undergoing care, more than 6 years after his rescue.

You too can sign up to get involved and learn how and when to look out for these stranded turtle hatchings and what steps you need to take when you find one. Watch this cinematic mini-clip in partnership with Chris Bertish.

Take the 28 Day Challenge! Make your Ocean Pledge!

This post is part of the #28DayOceanPledgeChallenge! You can find the other 27 posts and challenges on the Two Oceans Aquarium website, or by signing up for the Challenge newsletter below to receive one challenge a day for 28 days: