Dear Dot: How Can I Celebrate Without Balloons?



Dear Dot,

How can I celebrate an event without balloons?

–Cathy, Chilmark, Mass.

Dear Cathy,

One day in third grade, my teacher Mrs. Wright showed us a movie in which a young child encounters a balloon that seems to have a mind of its own. Perhaps, Cathy, you saw it too? It was French, silent, and called Le Ballon Rouge. Wikipedia tells me it was an Oscar-winning short created in 1956 that became beloved by educators, which explains why I was at my desk in 1974 watching it while Mrs. Wright, her candy floss hair piled high on her head, nodded off at the back of the classroom. While my classmates giggled at the balloon’s antics, I sat mute and terrified. To this day, I remain staunchly anti-balloon, even of balloons without free will. 

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While some might argue that balloons are the very symbol of celebration, I am not swayed. So I am grateful for the chance to address this scourge and offer up some jolly alternatives.

If you’re a beachcomber like me or, perhaps someone who hikes along a river or stream, you’ve likely come across evidence of past frivolity in the form of deflated balloons, their ribbons filthy and tangled. What you’re not seeing unless you, too, have come across the Balloons Blow website, are the many balloon bits found in the stomach of, say, a Hawksbill sea turtle or a Bighorn sheep, each of whom mistook balloons for food. 

We find another cautionary tale in the Great Cleveland Balloon Release Disaster of 1986. Cleveland wanted to get into the Guinness Book of World Records (and not for being the city most likely to set its river on fire). The record the city had its eyes on was largest balloon release in the world, with roughly 1.5 million balloons slated for the heavens. I mean … what could go wrong, right? At the balloons’ release, the crowd went wild. But shortly after the release, a storm rolled in off the Great Lakes, changing air pressure. Instead of floating away into the arms of God, the balloons fell on Cleveland, closing the airport, causing traffic accidents, and injuring two prize-winning horses who were spooked by the arrival of balloons in their pasture. (The litigious farmer won a $100,000 settlement from the city.) Ultimately, the powers-that-be at the Guinness Book of World Records refused to recognize the event due to the fallout. The moral of the story? What goes up must come down. 

But, while balloons might now be spherus non grata in Cleveland, the lesson hasn’t caught on in the rest of the world, despite laws that prohibit balloons in many cities, states, and countries. Incidentally, the balloon lobby (Big Balloon, so to speak) is fighting these laws.

The folks at Balloons Blow  — and a hearty Dear Dot shoutout to whomever named that organization! — tell us that beach litter surveys show a tripling in balloon pollution, an increase not the least bit surprising to any of us who pick up litter along the shore and head home laden with latex. The Balloons Blow site is a virtual natural history museum of marine and land animals who’ve met gruesome deaths by swallowing plastic, getting caught in ribbon, or other forms of murder by balloons. And don’t be fooled by promises of latex’s biodegradability. These deflated or burst balloons can wreak havoc for years

And let’s also consider the helium that is often used to keep these orbs aloft. Helium isn’t just the stuff that allows us to crack up the crowd by singing in a falsetto at wedding receptions. It’s a finite resource that is used in any number of scientific and medical applications, and the world is running out, according to a physics professor and Nobel Prize Winner from Cornell

But never let it be said that Dot is a total party pooper, a balloon-hating blowhard, a killer of helium-filled frivolity. I like to celebrate! I can be festive! 

Balloons Blow’s pinned Facebook post offers up a few alternatives to balloons, including blowing bubbles, colored lights, chalk writing/drawing, stepping stones. You can also use flowers or plants, or decorate with birdhouses. The great party planner that is Google suggests streamers, paper flowers, pinwheels, kites, and windsocks. 

Alternatives to balloon releases include Flying Wish Paper, or sending flower petals down a stream, or passing out seedballs (and not the kind you’ll find at Burning Man). Of course, always check that you’re not introducing an invasive species into an ecosystem.

With a little imagination and a refusal to cave to convention, Cathy, the sky’s the limit. 



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