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Latex Balloons and the Environment


Latex balloons are produced from the milky sap of the rubber tree, Hevea brasillensis. The rubber tree originated in the tropical forests of South America and was taken to Europe from Brazil - hence the Latin name. It is now grown on plantations in many tropical countries. The rubber tree grows for 17 years before it can be tapped into to extract latex. The latex is collected in buckets, as it drips from harmless cuts in the bark. The process is much like that used to collect maple syrup. The rubber tree has a life span of around 45 years. The use of latex balloons and other rubber products, make rubber trees economically valuable, which discourages people from cutting them down and provides a valuable revenue to many third world countries.

Latex is a 100% Biodegradable, natural substance that breaks down both in sunlight and water and should never be confused with plastic. The degradation process begins almost immediately after a balloon is manufactured. Oxidation, the "frosting" that makes latex balloons look as if they are losing their colour, is one of the first signs of the process. Exposure to sunlight quickens the process, but natural micro organisms attack natural rubber, even in the dark.
Research shows that under similar environmental conditions, latex balloons will biodegrade at about the same rate as a leaf from an oak tree. The actual total degradation time will vary depending on the precise conditions. 

Rubber trees, from which the latex for balloons is harvested, are one of the main forms of vegetation in tropical rain forests, which in recent years have become crucial to maintaining the earth's fragile ecological balance. Harvesting latex can be more profitable to poor third world nations than raising cattle on the deforested land.
Even when the trees producing latex for balloon manufacturing grow on plantations instead of in rain forests, they help the ecosystem, as the natural biology of the trees helps maintain our atmosphere and protect the ozone layer. The demand for latex balloons actually is a huge contributor to a more positive environment in which global warming is increasingly worrying scientists and environmentalists. The balloon industry worldwide requires the latex from 16-million rubber trees that, in total, take up more than 363-million kilograms of CO2 gases annually from the earth's atmosphere.

NSW has a law to prevent the release of 20 or more lighter than air balloons at or about the same time. The ruling comes under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 - Amendment (balloons) Act. Whilst All Things Party only uses 100% biodegradable latex balloons and strings for the purpose of balloon release we still encourage clients to seek alternatives to balloon releases. At the end of the day what goes up must come down and a balloon laying on the ground is still rubbish.

Clean up Australia reports (see pages 42) have never listed balloons as there own category. There are listed with RUBBER which makes up 1% of the total rubbish and includes tyres 9.3%, Clothes and rubber thongs 73%, Balloons are listed with Other (non-identified items) and are less than 230 out of 1802 total rubber items items.

After a correctly inflated helium-filled balloon is released, it rises through the atmosphere at a little under two metres per second. The balloon rises to a height of about 28,000 feet (about 8.4 kilometres) over a period of about 90 minutes. At that altitude the temperature is about -40 degrees C and the balloon has expanded to reach its elastic limit and bursts.

Under these high altitude conditions, the balloon actually shatters and undergoes what is called a "brittle fracture". The resulting pieces of rubber are about the size of a ten or twenty-cent piece and these float back to earth and are scatted over a wide area.

It is especially important to only use 28-30cm, 100% latex balloons, fully inflated with biodegradable strings and no clips or other attachments when doing a balloon release.

Foil balloons as we call them in Australia or Mylar balloons as they are referred to in the USA are not biodegradable. Mylar balloons are made with mylar nylon, a material developed for use with the US space program. Balloons made from mylar are often coated with a metallic finish and are available in a variety of shapes and imprinted designs. Mylar balloons are not classified bio-degradable and should never be released.