Friday, 8 March 2013

Breaking the cycle of harm

I saw a balloon release story in yet another regional newspaper today.

A balloon release story is an evergreen staple of the national and regional media. If there are hundreds reported in online editions every year for good causes, in all likelihood there are thousands of them occurring in the UK. They are increasingly popular at weddings and charity fundraising events as well as memorials.

I must point you to photographs of my beaches in Suffolk as to why I object to any balloon release.

As a journalist myself, I have begun to ask journalists to report balloon releases accurately for what they are: simple littering. Balloon release reports rarely mention their impact on the environment. Any mention of impact is usually a reassurance they are harmless, often quoting a balloon vendor or their proxy the event organiser. In ideal conditions a single natural latex balloon will eventually decay but 'ideal' is not the same as 'always' and releases are rarely limited to a single balloon without tags, plastic ties or strings. It's another tragedy of the commons where each person justifies it by "just one won't hurt".

Balloon releases are mainly done for publicity. They are a photogenic story but, in general, the print and television news media is totally negligent in reporting the harm that they cause or even questioning their impact.

Balloon litter found on Dunwich Beach

Mainstream media has many responsibilities; the most paramount is to be fair, balanced and report the truth. It should not give balloon release organisers encouragement by advance or post-event publicity without at least reporting the harm they cause. This cycle of harm must be broken.

Every year there are thousands and thousands of balloon releases world-wide that were encouraged by every previous release and the photographs published in the media show the vast majority do not adhere to the balloon industry guidelines to only use latex balloons without any strings or tags. The very premise of the popular fundraising method of balloon races requires a tag on every balloon though. Every so-called "responsible" balloon release will spawn hundreds of much more harmful imitators. The general public cannot be trusted to observe release guidelines. The balloon industry cannot be relied on to impose them. In every society its moral standards sink to the limit of enforcement. What would our roads be like if our speed limits were merely guidelines?

Mylar balloon litter found in Suffolk

Sometimes balloon releases are done as a memorial for a dead person, sometimes in tragic cases of children dying. A private expression of grief in this way is ill advised but is generally respected but memorial organisers often seek publicity for their memorials which only leads to more such releases. 

People seek publicity for various reasons. Good causes usually want to raise awareness of their particular cause with a  wider public. Balloon releases are cheap to to organise and seem to walk into content-hungry regional media without question. To approach people who plan and promote memorial releases after their announcement is very difficult. In my experience it's quite safe to generalise that they perceive even the most polite request as being insensitive to their grief. Should harmful expressions of grieving be permitted regardless? Is this suttee of wildlife and livestock and trashing of places of natural beauty acceptable? 
density per km of balloon litter on Beachwatch surveys since 1996

Otherwise celebrities like Jeff Brazier shall continue to encourage his 35,000 twitter followers and readers on the Huffington Post blog to join him in releasing thousands of balloons in memory of Jade Goody planned for March 17th 2013. This is not private grieving and it demands a response that it is irresponsible. His particular (and not unusual) response is to block people who contact him on twitter politely asking him to reconsider.

Balloon releases need pre-emptive information to discourage them. That won't come from the balloon sellers. It won't come from local government who don't require any licenses to release balloons. It could come from the media who can either refuse to run the story or it could respond with "thank you for your submission but we don't promote littering and will report it as such when it happens".

anti litter campaigns are undermined by balloon releases

The defence of releases that the balloons are biodegradable is a myth, put out by the balloon industry obviously to protect their interests. The great number of "turn-up" releases usually include Mylar balloons which are indestructible. But all this is beside the point. Balloon releases are simply littering. If people can be issued with Fixed Penalty Notices for dropping biodegradable fast food or similar litter, how is it permissible to allow and promote littering by balloon releases? Why does the unacceptable disposing of something by dropping on the ground become acceptable by filling it with lighter-than-air gas and releasing it to fall to the ground later?

The legality of balloon releases is subject to debate. The law seems pretty clear that to "otherwise deposit" material is littering but enforcement is very selective. The Metropolitan Police chose not to determine that Lord Coe was littering when he released thousands of balloons to open the Olympic Stadium in May 2012, but whether something is legal, or quasi legal, it doesn't follow it is also acceptable. It used to be legal for a man to beat his wife or to send children into coal mines. Society seems to have a collective blindness to the implications of releasing TONNES of latex and plastic into the air every year in the UK to come down on water and land to leave an unsightly and dangerous mess.

Another menace; the litter from a Chinese lantern
A good number of organisations can provide scientific evidence of the harm of balloons being released, which is far from limited to latex balloons. The RSPCA, National Farmers Union and anti-litter organisations have published guidance asking people not to release balloons. But whatever the scientific argument is, it's just a red herring. The simple fact remains, to let a balloon go deliberately is just littering. No good cause can justify that harm.

If you want more links and information, I suggest you follow the hashtag #balloonrelease on twitter. has begun tracking the number of balloon releases reported in the media and on social media.

So if you are a journalist, I urge you to reconsider how you report balloon releases and the part you play in encouraging them. Otherwise you are complicit in this harm.

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