It was an emotionally charged moment. Mourners massing to release helium-filled balloons as a loved one is committed to the earth at a cemetery. Purple and pink, because they were their favourite colours.
The balloons could be symbolic of the soul taking flight, or simply a colourful and collective show of loss and respect. Either way, it’s a powerful, touching and tearful moment.
But there must be another way, says the Western Bay Wildlife Trust – like planting a tree or casting flowers and seed balls.
“Because the balloons present a huge threat to our wildlife,” says trust chairperson Julia Graham.
The string used to tie the balloons snares legs and wings and the balloon pieces are often mistaken for food. “Balloons choke, strangle and kill,” says Julia. “While most people are aware fishing line can be an issue with birds, they seem unaware balloons pose the same danger.”
The warning comes on the back of a learning experience of a four-year-old called Ava from Greater Manchester in the UK. She and her parents released a helium balloon on her birthday. It carried a message asking whoever found it to post on Facebook so they knew how far it had traveled.
“Love from Ava xxxx” it said.
It was found 160 kilometres away in Shropshire. There wasn’t much love coming back - the finder bawled her out.
“At 6.30 this morning, while you were tucked up, I was saving a little fallow deer called Bambi who was choking on your birthday balloon.”
The finder was slammed for guilt-tripping a four-year-old, but Ava’s mum understood the consequences of their actions and was “so, so sorry.”
Tauranga environmentalist Paul Cuming says ditched balloons do appear identical to a turtle’s favourite food - namely jellyfish floating on the surface of the ocean.
And he points to a rather unpleasant Facebook posting doing the rounds which shows someone hauling plastic or a balloon from the gullet of a distressed turtle.
“Yes, turtles are in New Zealand waters,” says Pauls, “particularly at this time of the year when the water is warmer.”
The Western Bay Wildlife Trust says there have been mass balloon releases in Mount Maunganui in the past. “And we have spent the following weeks picking up the rubbish we have found in penguin nesting areas on Mauao, Moturiki Island and particularly Motuotau or Rabbit Island,” says Julia.
“Not only is it dangerous for our wildlife - particularly the likes of seabirds and penguins – it’s also littering. There is no difference between throwing away an empty coffee cup onto the ground and releasing a balloon.”
The trust strongly encourages people to find other ways to celebrate or remember, such as planting trees, making native seed balls to disperse and throwing flowers.
Cleveland Ohio had an expensive lesson in the folly of mass balloon releases.
A fundraiser involving 1.5 million balloons went horribly wrong when the balloons were blown back across the city preventing the Coast Guard helicopter from taking off. When it did take off, two people in a boating accident had drowned because they couldn’t be seen in the water amongst all the floating balloons.
It also cost the city millions of dollars in damages. For example, a horse was seriously injured when the balloons spooked it and the owner sued for $100,000. The clean-up took weeks.
Tauranga City Council doesn’t have a specific bylaw relating to the mass release of balloons.
But there is a clause in its Street Use and Public Places Bylaw, which says: “No person without prior written permission of council, shall cause or allow any material or thing to be deposited or dropped onto a public place.”
There’s also the Waste Management and Minimisation Bylaw which covers waste implication for events on council land or roads. It requires organisers to submit a waste minimisation questionnaire at the time of seeking permission to use land or roads for an event. That would form the basis of council advice to organisers about how to minimise and manage waste.
The council says it has had these types of requests in the past involving balloons and lanterns, and they are generally declined.