Some things belong in the desert, and some things do not.
Other than an occasional plastic shopping bag that parachutes in with the wind, we rarely, if ever, see trash in the remote areas of Imperial National Wildlife Refuge where we volunteer and hike as naturalists. We revel in its pristine condition, signs of humanity usually restricted to airplane contrails above.
But favorable winds can transport a balloon hundreds of miles from its release point. And often the balloon trails a ribbon or string that can entangle wildlife. We once located a balloon by its ribbon extending from the hole of a kangaroo rat.
Miles and miles from their launch sites, balloons end up in remote corners of the desert, arrested by the spines of a prickly pear cactus or a branch of a creosote bush. When visiting town, each time we witness a balloon freed from its tether floating “harmlessly” into the air, we wonder if that’s one more we’ll encounter on one of our forays into these isolated regions.
Aside from distracting from the beauty of nature, these objects pose a threat to surrounding wildlife. Balloons are said to eventually disintegrate, but it takes months.
“While balloon manufacturers argue that balloon litter is minor,” says Melanie Pearson, Director of Animal Care at New Canaan Nature Center in New Canaan, Connecticut, “environmental groups will report large numbers of balloons and balloon pieces collected in organized clean ups. While latex balloons are considered to be non-toxic, they will accumulate, along with other plastic debris, in an animal’s stomach and intestines often blocking the passage of food and causing the animal to starve to death. ”
Even worse are mylar balloons which are synthetic and not biodegradable. While they are not used in releases, they can escape accidentally and drift far and wide before alighting anywhere, including the most inaccessible areas.
Trash found at the side of the road is ugly and disgraceful, but easily retrieved. Trash found in the far reaches of the remote desert is inexcusable and irresponsible and may remain in place for years. Thought given to the use and containment of balloons can go a long way toward keeping secluded locations unspoiled.
Balloon in packrat hole:
More Balloon Trash:
What we do with it: