The Innocent Destroyers: How Balloons Kill Wildlife

Your balloons don’t float up to heaven. They go up … and then back down, littering the ground and water, and ultimately killing animals.



This story originally appeared in GearJunkie.

Picture this: You are devastated, standing in front of a funeral. As you finish speaking in front of loved ones, you pick up a live duck and slowly begin to choke it to death.

Can you imagine? Of course not. It’s horrible to even consider.

But why, then, is it socially acceptable to release a balloon in that same situation? Because ultimately, balloons released into the environment kill animals, pollute waterways, and litter remote forests and prairies around the world.

I’m not gonna be nice about this, and will probably hurt some feelings. I simply don’t care. People do some strange things when they’re grieving and even stranger things when they’re celebrating.

Sending balloons up to heaven may seem sweet, but I’m not sure Nana would be excited to know that you killed a bunch of songbirds in her memory.

Stop it.

Millions of balloons are released each year, leading to countless wildlife deaths and endless litter, in every corner of the map. So, how the hell did we get here and what can we do about it?

From bladders to blunders

archival shot of kids blowing up a balloon, sepia toned

Two Boys Blowing a Bladder by Candle-light, Peter Perez Burdett, 1773. Photo: The Met Museum

Balloons have a history going back farther than you might think. Without going into a full-blown anthropology lesson, even the Aztecs used cat intestines filled with air to make crude balloon shapes for sacrificial purposes. Hot air balloons have been in use since the 1700s.

Balloons are not a new idea, but their form has changed drastically in modern times.

In 1842, Michael Faraday laid two pieces of rubber sheets down with a bit of powder between them. He then sealed the edges and inflated what would be the first rubber balloon. After that, balloon kits became all the rage. Those kits included sheets of rubber and sealant.

Rubber balloons as we know them made their way into production in 1907 in the U.S. By the ’30s and ’40s, “sausage-style” balloons became a staple, allowing clowns everywhere to create countless balloon poodles and swords.

The 1970s brought more than glam rock and disco. Mylar balloons now offered durability and graphic capabilities that rubber lacked.

Since then, balloons have been a fixture at every type of celebration. I’d love to tell you how many balloons are sold each year, but that number is hard to track. Approximately 50 million helium-filled balloons are sold in California alone each year.

A unique piece of trash

The real problem comes down to travel. It’s estimated that the average helium-filled balloon can float up to a height of around 20 miles above the Earth’s surface. That’s the point that the atmosphere and the helium inside the balloon reach equilibrium. The reality is, they tend to pop far before they reach that height.

The distance they can travel is a completely different story. The horizontal distance a balloon can travel is nearly infinite, pending circumstances, wind, location, and a host of other variables.

In December 2012, a group of British schoolchildren released 300 helium-filled latex balloons in an attempt to study weather and geography. Those balloons were attached to contact information, asking anyone who found them to please reach out to let the children know how far their balloons had traveled.

By February, they received a letter notifying the class that one of the balloons had traveled 10,545 miles, found in Australia. Balloons don’t stay where you release them, making them a unique problem. If they fell at our feet, we might have a better grasp of the damage.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Balloons: floating death

Left: Bird Carcass Strangled by Balloon. Center: Bird Carcass Hanging by Balloon String. Right: Sea Turtle Carcass Caused by Balloon Suffocation.

Left: Bird Carcass Strangled by Balloon. Photo/Virginia Stranding Response Program. Center: Bird Carcass Hanging by Balloon String. Photo: USFWS Right: Sea Turtle Carcass Caused by Balloon Suffocation. Photo: USFWS


It’s nearly impossible to estimate the number of wildlife deaths caused by balloons each year. Because of the nature of balloons, they litter the entire globe.

Birds are one of the most visible victims, often becoming tangled in the strings causing strangulation and death. Both plastic grocery sacks and balloons look too much like a sea turtle’s native diet, leading to ingestion and suffocation. Fish are often found tangled in balloon waste, which is no different than being tangled in nets. It seems there is no demographic untouched.

Organizations have popped up across the globe in an attempt to educate the public on the dangers of releasing balloons.

The Desert Balloon Project is one that has seen the devastating effects of both mylar and latex balloons on our desert habitats. This organization was started by a teen who just happened to look around and realize something was wrong. If there’s anything more poignant than seeing a Bighorn Sheep Carcass with balloons knotted around its horns, I surely haven’t seen it. is another taking drastic steps to try and fix the growing balloon litter issues. According to one of its studies:

In 2016-2019, volunteers participating in the International Coastal Cleanup reported more than 29,800 littered balloons in Mid-Atlantic states—New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Of these, 15,076 balloons were found in New York, 6,626 were found in New Jersey, and Virginia volunteers found 4,154 balloons. Data reveal that in Virginia most of the balloon litter is found on its beaches, demonstrating that balloon litter accumulates in some coastal environments. A 5-year (2013-2017) monitoring project on remote islands of Virginia documented 11,441 pieces of balloon litter—up to 272 pieces per mile of beach.

But I use biodegradable latex

Photo: Shutterstock


Bad news, Karen: Your biodegradable balloons are out there suffocating Bambi. “Biodegradable” latex — advertising 100% natural rubber that completely biodegrades — purports a fix for the growing balloon blight unfolding on the landscape.

But multiple studies have found that this claim is 100% false. The findings show that these balloons will break down, but only under absolutely perfect commercial compost conditions. One major study found that the biodegradable latex balloons, on average, only lost 1-2% of their mass after 16 weeks in standard composting conditions. In fact, those same balloons in freshwater actually gained mass.

The findings lead to this very confident, sweeping conclusion:

“Taken together, latex balloons did not meaningfully degrade in freshwater, saltwater, or compost indicating that when released into the environment, they will continue to contribute to anthropogenic litter and pose a threat to wildlife that ingest them.”

‘Latex balloons do not degrade uniformly in freshwater, marine and composting environments,’ Journal of Hazardous Material, February 2021.

Here’s your dose of reality: No matter how green-washed your latex balloons are, they still murder animals and wreak havoc on the environment.

Mylar balloons: worst of all

smiley balloon floating in blue sky

Photo: Shutterstock


Walk into your neighborhood dollar store, and for the low, low price of $1, you can walk out with a helium-filled fun bag that, if released into the wild, will literally never decompose. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that mylar balloons do not ever biodegrade. They can also travel for thousands of miles before dropping out of the sky — meaning you could be littering landscapes you’ve never even seen, forever!

That’s right. That bright yellow smiley face that you bought for your screaming toddler on a whim, which he then let go of in the parking lot, will have the opportunity to litter the landscape and strangle animals with its pretty little ribbon for eons after our species has gone extinct.

Not only that, but mylar balloons are also responsible for thousands of power outages every year. In just New Jersey alone, the largest gas and electricity provider saw a 26% increase in power outages caused by released mylar balloons between 2015 and 2020. What a show, right? Using up resources and leaving people without power is just good ol’ fashioned fun.

What about helium?


Photo: Shutterstock


Helium, on this particular planet, is running out. As far as we know, helium is the second most common element in the universe. There is a lot of it out there. The problem? There isn’t a lot of it in here.

On this little rock we call Earth, helium is the only element on the periodic table that is labeled as being completely nonrenewable. Helium comes from the radioactive decay of other deep-earth elements, and that process takes many, many millennia to occur.

All that is to say: The planet isn’t making any more helium, anytime soon.

So, when will we run out? You may be shocked to learn that it’s estimated that your precious balloons will be grounded in just 25-30 years.

Who cares, right? So we run out of helium, boo-hoo. Clowns will have to pick up a new skill, and Disney will have to come up with new methods to move houses. No more high-voice tricks to impress the kiddies? What’s the harm?

An MRI machine

An MRI machine and the helium that keeps it running. Photo: Shutterstock


Well, if you’ve ever had an MRI, you have helium to thank. The element stays in a liquid state at insanely low temperatures. If the temps dropped to -269˚C, helium would flow like a beautiful liquid river. That property allows helium to be a super-cooling agent, keeping machinery like a magnetic resonance imaging machine from overheating.

Outside of the medical world, helium is used for welding, laser processing, the manufacturing of fiber optics, semiconductor processing, scuba diving, and so much more.

But go on … keep on filling up those super-important balloons just to keep Junior from losing his shit at the store.

Why should we care?

Photo: Shutterstock


If you’ve made it this far and don’t understand why you should care, you’re probably a lost cause. In that event, I’ll let you know why I care and what I’ve seen.

I live in a place that is, in modern terms, relatively untouched. As a guide in Yellowstone National Park, I’ve found both latex and mylar balloons far from the reach of the tourist traps. I’ve come across them in the backcountry, wrapped up in eagle’s nests. I found them melted and lying across the travertine terraces of the geyser basins. I’ve seen them wrapped up in the tallest pines and floating in the most pristine waters.

As a hunter, I’ve sat glassing an opposing ridge and caught a flash I assumed was human, shocked that I wasn’t alone in the middle of literal nowhere, only to turn my scope and see a smiling balloon staring back at me. There is no place untouched by these stupid sacks of not-fun.

Seeing a deer with balloons and ribbons tangled around its antlers is hard to watch. Not to use the overly victimized sea turtle for yet another agenda, but the appearance of a balloon in the water looks so much like a jellyfish. Causing a turtle to suffocate on a balloon because you wanted to celebrate Jenny’s graduation seems so dissociated and unnecessary.

At this stage, if you still need convincing, you’re just not going to get it.

My final hot take: If you absolutely have to buy balloons (you don’t) to satisfy your celebratory bug, at least be responsible about how you use them, where you dispose of them, and for cripes’ sake — stop releasing them into the wild.