I have spent a portion of the day with my palm to my face. It was in reaction to seeing What’s on Bristol release a load of promotional helium balloons with vouchers attached at several locations across the region.
My dismay was paired with an intense feeling of déjà vu, because last Thursday festival organisers Love Saves The Day (LSTD) released helium-filled balloons with tickets attached to them off the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Their publicity stunt was met with criticism on social media by scores of people who understood the environmental and social implications of their misguided actions. To their credit, LSTD swiftly released a statement apologising for their actions, stating they will not repeat the stunt and continue to work to improve their sustainability.
Despite this, What’s on Bristol decided to follow suit and release more balloons (I can’t share a link, because all their social media posts have been deleted).
Unsurprisingly, their actions were also criticised. So were the actions of those who called them out… apparently I am a tree-hugging, vegan, killjoy eco-warrior. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint – I’m not vegan, I don’t dress entirely in hemp and I don’t spend my days chained to trees (if that’s you, I respect you for that). But I do understand that all of us rely on our ever-abused natural environment to survive in this world.
So why are balloons an issue? Recent surveys from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) have found the amount of balloon litter on UK beaches increased by over 50 per cent last year. What goes up must come down, and they are coming down as deadly rubbish. Balloons and their attachments end up in the sea and are often eaten by seabirds or fish, who mistake the items for food. Birds feed the litter to their chicks, causing them to starve to death. Farmers aren’t best pleased either. Balloons can choke or entangle livestock and other animals. The problem can be closer to home too, as litter that lands in our parks and gardens impacts local wildlife and can even get eaten by our pets.
So if it is really that bad, why isn’t it illegal? Well, there are already laws in place to prevent public littering. Under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) it is a criminal offence for a person to drop, throw down, leave or deposit litter in a public place. But without proper enforcement, the laws are useless.
Avon and Somerset Police responded to a reporting of the LSTD balloon release to say yes it is a crime, but not a police matter. This is why I and others are calling on Bristol City Council to step up and take action to prevent these harmful events. Dozens of other local authorities have already imposed a ban on balloon releases, as well as Chinese (sky) lanterns, because to them the environmental evidence is a no-brainer. It is time Bristol City Council followed their example.
Some people argue that a few hundred balloons now and again is nothing compared to much bigger environmental issues, and to criticise this is an overreaction. I find this attitude troubling. If something is a little bit wrong, compared to some big scale wrong, that doesn’t mean we should simply ignore it.
Can I single-handedly solve the issue of catastrophic marine pollution? Erm, sorry, no I can’t. Can you do something that contributes to reducing the massive issue? Well yes actually, you can, and I think that’s far more empowering. Any issue that has ever resulted in a step-change was once considered a non-issue by some. Since the charge on plastic carrier bags was introduced in October 2015, MCS surveys found the number of bags on UK beaches dropped by almost half. Small changes make a big difference.
If you want to mark an event there are many other options that don’t involve organised littering and environmental damage. Are you planning a promotional activity and want to create (the right kind of) media buzz? Organise an epic treasure hunt. Want to celebrate with your kids? Blow some giant bubbles or fly a kite. Want to remember a loved one? Light a candle in a special place, or plant a tree in their memory. If you’re planning a balloon release, I urge you; please think again, because ultimately we all lose out.
Jennifer Garrett is a freelance communications specialist and wildlife lover
What’s on Bristol issued an apology for its actions and said it had not intended to cause any offence or harm.
A spokeswoman for the company told Bristol24/7 they received a mixed response from members of the public, including a lot of positive feedback, but deleted all social media posts on Tuesday because some of the comments had been getting quite mean.
Read more: Festival apologises after publicity stunt