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Balloon releases – a touching celebration or an environmental tragedy?

Updated Friday, 10 November 2023

Lots of balloons floating up into the sky can be a touching tribute or celebration, but environmentalists warn of their longer-term impact on wildlife once the balloons pop.

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What is a balloon release?

Mass balloon releases are purposely designed events – such as a wedding or funeral – where people let go of many helium- or hydrogen-filled balloons and watch them float up into the sky. Due to how they are made and how they travel in the wind, the balloons often reach heights and distances that mean people can lose sight of them.

Balloons released in the sky

Why do people release balloons at funerals?

Balloon releases can be highly symbolic for people. Some see it as an act that represents the soul or a prayer going into heaven. For others, it can represent a sense of ‘letting go’ of anger, past hurt, or of a person or even letting go of grief. Some view it as like sky lantern ceremonies but without the risk of fire from the lanterns.

Man holding litter (an old popped balloon)

Environmental concerns

Over the last few decades, numerous groups have raised concerns about the environmental impact of balloon releases. For example, when balloons finally pop, the materials may be swallowed by animals and cause them to become ill and/or die. It has been reported that dolphins, turtles and seabirds have all been found with balloons in their stomachs. Although people can buy bio-degradable latex balloons, these may still pose a risk to animals as they can take months to years to bio-degrade, especially in water. If ribbons are attached to the balloons, these can also trap wildlife and get tangled in plants. 

Pieces left over from balloons are one of the leading sources of waste found on beaches – they cause litter far from where the original event took place. Because of the environmental concerns, many local authorities in the UK and states in the USA have banned mass balloon releases; this prohibition may include not being able to release balloons near crematorium or cemeteries.

Man blowing bubbles

Alternative practices

Finding suitable alternative practices depends on the importance and symbolism of the ritual or practice. Each practice will also have its own cost and environmental impact to consider. Here are some examples of things people have done that have worked for them, with similar or less expense to balloon releases:

  • Blowing bubbles
  • Painting stones with messages
  • Throwing natural confetti made from flower petals
  • Flying a kite 

This article was inspired by watching a balloon release at a funeral. You can learn more about funerals by watching Stacey Dooley: Inside the Undertakers and following the OU’s content on OU Connect.



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