Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Sunday, 3 June 2012

There's not much to be said in favour of releasing balloons is there?

by @JoBrodie,

I've been following the exchanges Andy Mabbett (aka @pigsonthewing) has been having lately with people who are determined to release balloons for a variety of celebratory reasons. There's something very pretty about watching a lot of helium balloons floating off up into the sky and I can see why people might want to do it as a form of advanced ribbon-cutting.

It's not awfully good for the environment or livestock though.

There are many things that aren't very environmentally friendly but there's some other benefit against which the risk might be balanced. For example it's reasonably impractical for most people to undertake a sea voyage to go to America (takes a week, fairly costly) although I'm led to believe that doing so has less of a carbon cost than flying there in a few hours.

From what I can gather there's pretty much no benefit in letting off balloons beyond the pleasant visual spectacle and feelgood factor - it seems to be nothing more than aesthetic vertical littering.

I've been reading up on in-air balloon behaviour - they can get pretty high before popping but many of them don't pop 'properly' and instead just deflate. A spent balloon can end up several miles away from its original launch site and with no tracking system built in (as happens when you send up a weather balloon for example) there's not much responsibility that can be taken for clearing up afterwards. They land all over the place on land and sea and seem to have managed to kill a variety of livestock and birds, especially the ones that have a string and card attached to them to say who sent them.

Apparently biodegradable ones are an improvement, but not that much of an improvement and I can't help thinking that releasing balloons is... well a bit pointless.

It turns out that quite a few councils have banned balloon releases on council property and plenty of environmental and animal welfare charities have called for wider spread bans / legislation etc. I'm not sure how successful that will be.

The problem is persuading people to stop doing it. No-one really likes hearing that the x hundred balloons they're releasing to mark the death of a small child is actually a bad idea for the environment. Some of them dislike it so much they're pretty rude to anyone who tries to point this out. Simply ignoring / not engaging with the people who are making a mess seems to be a bit of a cop-out... what to do?


  1. Of course telling people who want to celebrate hat it's inappropriate won't work especially well, so the communication would need to target a different stage in the process.

    There's the added problem of global helium supplies running out...

  2. Yes indeed...

    I'm led to believe that balloon helium is of a quality not suitable for lab work, however I've not followed this up (and presumably it could be purified!). I used to use helium and have fond memories of the element in its various forms ;)


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