Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Husker Football Balloon Releases & Nebraska Littering

This post was written by my wife; we're both passionate about Nebraska and what's left of the prairie along with the wildlife in it. Releasing balloons to celebrate the first touchdown at Husker football games is nothing short of mass littering -- punishable by fines most everywhere else -- and the practice kills wildlife while polluting Nebraska and states thousands of miles away. This is not a "tradition" worth keeping if we love Nebraska, our home. BV

This balloon landed in our garden after the September 1, 2012, Husker game. It was part of a final send off, meant to give UNL football fans the opportunity to photograph the 60+ year tradition of releasing 4,000-5,000 helium balloons after the first touchdown of every home game, before the practice was temporary suspended due to a global helium shortage.

In my mind, the suspension came as a relief, since balloons do not simply float into the sky and disappear. Instead, they can drift hundreds and even thousands of miles away, polluting our countryside, waterways, and oceans. Birds, fish, turtles, and other small animals ingest the debris, resulting in intestinal blockage and death, while others become fatally ensnared in the string.

Photo from The Ocean Conservancy
The self-imposed balloon ban at UNL lasted only two weeks, however. By the following home game--and for every home game since--the balloon release was reinstated. When I contacted the UNL athletic association about environmental concerns related to balloon releases, I was assured via form letter that the balloons are biodegradable, a statement underscored by Chris Anderson, Associate Athletic Director for Community Relations, in a 2011 interview with the Daily Nebraskan. "'Many years ago we switched to biodegradable balloons,' Anderson said. 'That way we can keep the tradition alive without hurting the environment.'" See the full article here.

Photo from http://huskerdaily.com/

The problem with "biodegradable" balloons is that they take years to decompose, giving wildlife plenty of time to ingest them before they disintegrate. My spouse and I decided to see how long it would take for the Husker balloon that landed in our garden to decompose. In September 2012, Ben buried the balloon in a vegetable bed, under compost and clay soil, where it stayed for 14 months. He dug it up on December 1, 2013, to check on its decomposition status. The balloon was intact, with no holes or fading to the ink. The remnant of the attached ribbon still looked new. He returned the balloon to the ground for another nine months. 

It's now September 21, 2014, and we dug up the balloon again this afternoon. The attached string remains intact, and for the most part, the balloon does, too. The latex does feel more brittle, and the ink is now crackled. But, the balloon has yet to decompose, even after two years.

Photo from Balloons Blow
Another claim made about latex balloons--biodegradable or not--is that "when the balloons reach their maximum height of about five miles, the atmospheric pressure causes the balloons to expand and eventually shatter into thousands of tiny little pieces, which makes it nearly impossible for animals to eat" (as described by Matt Havelka, reporting for the Daily Nebraskan in the above referenced article). 

Photo from Balloons Blow
The reality is that while the balloons may indeed shatter, the pieces are not impossible for animals to eat. In fact, the fringe of shattered latex balloons mimics the shape of jellyfish, a favorite meal for many ocean animals [in addition, fish, birds, and other kinds of aquatic life also see pieces as food].

Let's create a new tradition to celebrate Husker pride--one that doesn't pollute our streams and fields, harm wildlife, or sully the Nebraska so many of us love and call home.

Photo from Balloons Blow

SIGN THE PETITION to encourage UNL to end balloon releases.


litterpreventionprogram.com said...

I appreciate what you are trying to do and would like to draw attention to it in an upcoming edition of my newsletter.

litterpreventionprogram.com said...

This Week In "Litterland"

Victor said...

Lighten up, Francis.

Unknown said...

Just an example of someone, after 2 years of a balloon landing in his yard, is still pissed off and wants to ruin a deep tradition. If you really want to make a difference go and chase waste company's that improperly dispose of chemicals, automobile manufacturers that continue to pollute the sky's and the air YOU breathe in every day. Let it go Ben and try focusing on a battle that will make a BIG difference.

Anonymous said...

Get a life or move to California with the other radical idiots. GO big Red Oh yea that helium stops Global Warming

Anonymous said...

I believe this to be a noble attention-grabber for a greater cause. And that's the issue I have, because there are far more significant avenues & lower-hanging fruit to pursue. This speaks to "Hey! I know the perfect way to get attention!" and that perceived intention is bad form. Especially considering you likely don't possess credible data that specific red latex has killed any wildlife, and litter just simply exists, and is eventually forgotten. Aim higher my friend, no pun intended. Focus on the Keystone pipeline, as I am.

Anonymous said...

Go take your tradition ruining hippie attitude to California you Liberal Husker Hater! If you don't like our balloon tradition then you can GET OUT!

Anonymous said...

I love how we post a picture of a seagull to make people in Nebraska feel bad. You have no numbers no tangible proof that these balloons are affecting the wildlife in Nebraska. I'm trying to be a jerk but there is enough environmental overreach in our lives. I think you should back off of this one.

Diana Studer said...

similar issues to Sea Rescue asking people not to release 'sky lanterns' as they can be mistaken as distress flares - and the issues of litter and marine life.

Anonymous said...

Wow!!! Please find a real problem to solve!!Leave this tradition alone!50 years later and Nebraska and its environment are just fine the way they are!!The ballons are even more enviro friendly then they used to be!! I'm so ashamed of people who attempt to gain attention by being a contrarian!

Unknown said...

It's interesting (and honestly a bit disturbing) to read the vitriolic comments here, on your Facebook page, and especially on the Watchdog.org article. I applaud your efforts, you liberal, radical, attention-seeking, pissed-off, environmental contrarian. ; ) Know that your fellow contrarians appreciate all that you are doing and are signing your petition at change.org.

You are making a difference, Benjamin.

Amanda said...

I am also shocked at all of the negative responses you are getting. It makes me sad that people care more about a stupid tradition than saving the environment. I support you.

Anonymous said...

I am all for making the environment a better place but at this stage it is just an opinion. There really is no proof to prove that these specific balloons husker fans release pollute the environment. You say these mimic jelly fish but Nebraska wildlife do not even know what jelly fish are because we are not on the coast nor near an ocean therefore many will view this a irrelevant. However I will always be open to new evidence and open to changing my opinion on the situation. Best to you and Go Big Red!

Julie @ Southern Wild Design said...

Wow! I was going to make a wisecrack about biodegradable balloons being an oxymoron...but it seems to me the responses you have gotten are even more...moronic??? Wow! Such venom.

It does sound like those Husker balloons do cooperate and nicely observe the state boundaries!

Hang in there. For those who are insisting that you "find a bigger cause" I say that the life of the earth and its well-being is made up of millions of little causes. If each of us take up just one of those, think what an impact we would make.

It reminds me of a quote from Cloud Atlas...paraphrasing..."my life is but one drop in a limitless ocean. But what is an ocean but a multitude of drops." ~Julie

Anonymous said...

I support your efforts, there are always people who don't understand that changes can be small and have a big impact. Attitudes are hard to change, but if you change one person, it can have a wave effect and touch many more. I admire California's law makers, BTW.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for calling attention to unnecessary balloon releases - It is simply littering the sky, and ultimately the earth. The athletic department wouldn't be able drop 5000 balloons on the ground without a littering violation how is it logical that they can release them into the sky with out a violation? For those who say its a tradition they should take a quick look back at history at other tradition that we now find offensive. Just because its been done for a long time doesn't make it right.

stm said...

Thanks for the article Ben and all you do to raise awareness for a better environment. Doing without balloons in the sky does not to seem like a very big sacrifice to me, but change is hard, particularly when tampering with football traditions. The quote from above is a good one-"I say that the life of the earth and its well-being is made up of millions of little causes. If each of us take up just one of those, think what an impact we would make."

Anonymous said...

My sister favorite part is when the balloons go off and she is so happy to see all of those balloons. So what is she going to look forward to know every Saturday?

Anonymous said...

do every Saturday?

Unknown said...

Hi Ben,

I think it is absolutely great that you are doing this. My high school Marine Science Classes are leading a similar campaign for our graduation. Please look into us and share this information. I have been sharing your story with my school, and I've reached out to newspapers that have written about the Nebraska story as well.
Facebook: FWBHS Balloon Campaign 2016
Twitter: @fwbcampaign
Instagram: flogo4graduation

Please follow us! We support you!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Ashley -- Rock on! Love it. Fight for all life and you fight for own lives.