If you Google the phrase, “What goes up, must come down” you’ll learn that it’s attributed to Isaac Newton. You’ll also find the following explanation for it: “Things that are launched into the air will return back down to the ground. Why? Because of gravity, that’s why.” As a resident of the Ocean State, I can be found on the beach almost every day, sometimes humming the tune to Spinning Wheel, the song by Blood, Sweat and Tears that begins with Newton’s quotation. Why? Because almost every single time I walk the beach I see the crumpled remains of balloons along the tideline. That’s why. One sunny spring weekend, my son and I picked up over a hundred balloons in the one-mile-stretch of our favorite beach.
Balloons litter our shorelines. It comes as no surprise to learn that the balloon debris found in beach cleanups has tripled over the past ten years.
Colorful ribbons once clenched by sweaty toddler fists unfurl across the sand like desiccated tentacles. And this is one of the biggest problems with balloons—they look just like jellyfish to the critters gulping them down by mistake. Whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and birds have all been found on the beach with ingested balloons blocking their digestive systems, slowly starving them to death. Which isn’t the festive image we typically associate with a party balloon tied to someone’s mailbox. Or released en masse to mark a special occasion or memorialize a loved one.
As a bereaved parent, I have been cringing for years as folks gather in graveyards and on goal lines to release bundles of balloons. It’s a nice symbol and we all crane our necks to watch the colorful orbs float up to the heavens where we picture our loved ones waiting, hands outstretched, to receive them. Especially our dearly departed children, who will never, ever delight in that iconic symbol of earthly birthday celebrations again. But none of us truly believe that heaven is just a balloon ride away. Or that our beloveds will actually be the happy recipients of anything we launch into space. If it were true, we’d all tie a bunch of balloons to a lawn chair and take a trip, ourselves, to visit them. Remember Newton? Instead, other creatures will be on the receiving end. But not in the way we’ve intended.
Balloons are usually made of natural latex, which is biodegradable, but the decomposition takes many months, the ribbons even longer. Others are made of Mylar, a kind of foil, and can float for hundreds of miles before descending. A whale calf recently washed ashore in California, dead from choking on a Mylar balloon. Killing sea creatures in the name of our loved ones is not the sort of myth we should be perpetrating. Dead sea birds entangled in pink and blue grosgrain ribbon is not how we’d intentionally choose to celebrate life. Or honor our babies. After we’ve watched them float away and moved on, the beautiful balloons we’ve released will ultimately either burst or slowly deflate. Gravity ensures their return to earth and that goes for Chinese Lanterns as well. Once their flames burn out, the metal and bamboo frames can entangle birds and choke livestock.
A handful of cities and states have enacted laws banning the mass release of balloons and lanterns, along with the White House, National Park Service, and even Disney World. I think it’s high time we voluntarily join them. The Balloon Council spends millions of lobbying dollars to keep balloon releases legal. Who knew such a council even existed? They do. And their objective? Well, essentially it’s to encourage us to litter with their products. At the very least, balloon releases should be included in existing litter laws because, after all, that’s what they are.
If you want to memorialize your loved ones or mark a special occasion with something lofty, there are better alternatives. For streams of color high in the air, why not fly kites? How about a mass bubble release? Or monarch butterflies? Homing pigeons? Or my personal favorite—plant a tree. You can watch it grow and it will provide years of habitat for animals and birds instead of killing them. I love to lay under the sweet gum trees we planted in the cemetery for our sons, my memories framed by green leaves against blue sky. I imagine their roots, reaching into the minerals of my sons’ ashes to transform death into life. The growth of their trees tangibly measures the years since I last held my sons. But as their branches reach towards the sky, they also promise the time yet to come, bringing me closer to my sons than any balloon ever will.