Not to Pop Your Bubble, but Balloons Have No Place at Graduation

Balloons carry massive environmental consequences that should simply disqualify them from graduation decor.

By Tamima Itani

With graduation just around the corner, it’s essential that the University of Chicago and other celebrators refrain from using balloons. Celebratory balloons—whether biodegradable, latex, or mylar—pose a constant threat to wildlife, and as we approach graduation season, it is incumbent upon all of us to seek alternatives for celebration. Balloon releases in particular are harmful, and Illinois is looking into banning such releases in the near future.

Chicago’s now-famous piping plovers, Monty and Rose, returned to Montrose Beach Dunes this year for the third year in a row to nest. In the early hours of May 17, a surveillance camera showed them off the nest, their incubation interrupted by a “Congratulations” balloon that had blown over and become stuck on the cage installed over the nest to protect it. We do not know how long they were off the nest before a Fish and Wildlife Service employee went and retrieved the balloon. When incubation is interrupted for longer than two hours, eggs have a greater chance of failing and not hatching.

This was not the only incident reported this spring. Illinois coastal areas—which are critical for migrating shorebirds and where plovers have nested in previous years—were made unavailable due to large numbers of balloons wildly bouncing about along the lakefront. Dead birds have been retrieved, their legs and bodies entangled in balloons and the ribbons they were tied to. Even more disturbing is the fact that as these balloons break down over time, they leave behind microplastics, tiny fragments of petroleum products that will be ingested by aquatic organisms and increasingly concentrated in animals further up the food web. Microplastics are a major and growing concern in the Great Lakes and in oceans and other waterways worldwide.

Bake a cake. Put up a yard sign. Hang a banner. But keep wildlife safe and don’t use balloons.

Tamima Itani is the vice president and treasurer of the Illinois Ornithological Society and the volunteer monitor coordinator of the Chicago piping plovers.