Biodegrade, decompose, or just plain melt away, what really happens to balloon waste? Here’s the breakdown!
To address the question of biodegradability, it’s important to understand the term biodegradable as it applies to any product. Simply put, it means an item can be broken down into elements already found in nature. Technically speaking, this degradation happens when microorganisms, such as bacteria, consume the material. The rate of biodegradability varies depending on the environment. So how does this definition apply to balloons?
There are three broad categories of balloons: latex, foil (commonly referred to as Mylar or metallic), and those made from a stretchy, transparent material.
Latex balloons are made from a natural product derived from trees found on farms in equatorial regions of the world (the trees also exist naturally in rain forests and other places). The harvest of latex is a completely natural process. The trees are “tapped” for the liquid, similar to the harvesting of syrup. The trees are not trimmed or chopped in any way, so there’s no risk of deforestation.
Since latex is a 100% natural product, it will breakdown into a residue that is not harmful to the environment. Latex balloons biodegrade at about the same rate as other natural products, such as oak leaves and wood fibers. It is a chemical process not always visible in early stages. How long it takes to biodegrade ultimately depends on the environment—is it wet or dry, light or dark, and many other variables. Scientific studies conducted as early as 1914 and continuing through today prove this. These studies specifically documented the effect of many different types of bacteria and the degradation of latex. (Jendrossek et al., 1997)
Watching these bacteria at work doesn’t require expensive equipment or expertise. The best approach? Composting! It’s a fun and teachable activity for kids, and the resulting fertilizer can be used in the backyard. For tips on how to compost, check out this video.
Does this mean it’s OK to release latex balloons into the air?
No. While latex balloons are biodegradable, the length of time it takes these balloons to decompose varies based on environmental conditions. So they should be properly disposed of in a garbage bin or composted.
● One tree can produce latex for 40 years.
● Latex balloons decompose at the same rate as wood fibers.
● The rubber tree farms create jobs, promote and protect various plant and animal species, and even draw carbon from the air! Here is a cool video showing the process…
Foil Balloons & Stretchy Balloons
Foil balloons and stretchy balloons are made from metalized nylon and a mix of other products. Though not biodegradable, some cities accept them into citywide recycling programs. These balloons can also be inflated, deflated, and reused!
Remember, the most important thing when using helium-filled foil or stretchy balloons is to weight them!
Get the Facts – Additional Resources
So, that’s the basic breakdown of balloons. Want to learn more? Here’s additional informative research on biodegradability:
• 20 Balloon Experiments to Make Your Lessons Really Pop
• VIDEO – Amazing Balloon Tricks and Science Experiments
• Science Experiments with Balloons
• Recycle Wilted Mylar Balloons
• DIY Birthday Wreath with Number
• 11 Ways to Reuse Foil Balloons
• 4 Tips to Reduce Balloon Pollution
• Reduce Balloon Waste with These Easy Tips
• Jendrossek et al., 1997. Bacterial degradation of natural rubber: A privilege of actinomycetes? FEMS Microbiology Letters. V150. Issue 2, 179-188.
• Study on the Microbial Degradation of Natural Rubber Latex
• Microbial Degradation of Natural Rubber Latex
• The Definition of Biodegradable