Balloon Twisting or Sculpture, Mass Releases, and Wildlife Safety
The Fun and Versatile Balloon
Balloons have been a source of entertainment and enjoyment for many centuries. They are fun to use in games and make attractive and often elegant decorations for special events. Mass balloon releases are an important component of many celebrations and ceremonies. Balloons have also become a medium for creativity and are used to create whimsical models as well as more serious artwork.
Balloon twisting or sculpture is the art of creating models by twisting and joining balloons. Its most common application is to form amusing shapes that resemble animals or imaginary characters. Some artists are using the technique to create larger and more ambitious sculptures, however. Balloon twisting is entertaining and sometimes impressive.
In many parts of the world, balloons are popular, easily accessible, and inexpensive. Unfortunately, they can be dangerous for wildlife if they escape into the environment. Although it's not necessary to avoid balloons, it's important to follow certain precautions when using them in order to keep animals safe.
History of Balloons
The earliest balloons were made out of animal bladders, intestines, or stomachs. They were used as toys and for entertainment. Some people twisted balloons into new shapes even during the early stage of their history. The Aztecs made balloon animals out of cat intestines to present to their gods.
Michael Faraday was a famous chemist and physicist. He made the first rubber balloons in 1824 and filled them with hydrogen gas. They were made from caoutchouc, also known as India rubber or gum elastic. This material was produced from the milky latex extracted from the rubber tree. Natural latex is a good material for making a balloon, since it solidifies on exposure to air and forms a stretchy, flexible, and waterproof material. Rubber made from natural latex tends to melt in hot weather and crack in cold weather, however.
In 1847, J.G. Ingram began the creation of balloons from vulcanized rubber. This type of rubber is not affected by temperature changes. Its structure has been changed by a chemical process involving sulphur.
Modern balloons are made from natural latex containing additives or from a nylon or metallic material. They are usually filled with air or helium instead of hydrogen, which is flammable.
Mylar balloons are made of nylon and are generally covered with a metallic coating. They are not biodegradable. They conduct electricity and can cause damage and injury if they contact power lines or other electrical equipment.
Balloon Twisting, Sculpting, or Modelling
Balloon twisting is also known as balloon modelling, sculpting, or sculpture. Creating animals and other objects by twisting balloons is a popular activity for birthday parties and celebrations and is becoming an art form as well. The creators of the larger and more intricate models often refer to their work as balloon art and themselves as balloon artists.
Many young children are entranced when they see an animal made entirely out of balloons. One of my fondest childhood memories is of my accidental discovery that a room in my house was filled with balloon animals, which my father had prepared for Christmas Day. I'd forgotten that my parents had told me not to go into the room until after Christmas. Once I made the discovery I couldn't stop myself from secretly visiting the room periodically and admiring the menagerie, which seemed magical to me.
Balloon twisting is a fun family activity and hobby. Even children can have fun creating objects with balloons. Simple projects are suitable for younger children while the more complex projects are good for older ones.
Skilled artists prepare amazingly detailed and sometimes very large balloon sculptures for public displays. As they create their sculptures, the artists take into account how the sculptures will appear as the balloons gradually deflate. The changing appearance of a sculpture actually becomes part of the art. Balloon sculptures are also created as centerpieces for weddings, trade shows, and other special events. In these cases the emphasis is on attractiveness instead of entertainment.
Unfortunately, sculptures made from balloons are ephemeral. Some artists create objects whose components resemble balloons but are actually made of a more permanent material, such as brightly-coloured steel.
Balloon modelling has become a performance art. Modelling groups visit schools and perform in theatres. Sculptures made of balloons are also created as part of some clown and magic shows. In addition, balloons are being used to create buildings, furniture, costumes, and recreations of paintings, as shown in the video below.
Natural Latex Balloons
Modellers often prefer the properties of natural latex balloons to those of ones made from artificial materials. Balloons made of natural latex are said to have another advantage compared to ones made of different materials: some bacteria can break the latex down. Ultraviolet light from the sun also helps to degrade the material.
While natural latex does break down in the environment, the idea may be misleading with respect to balloons. The degradation process may take months or even years and may be slower in some environments than others. Additives such as plasticizers and artificial colours may not break down. Though latex balloons are the best type for making sculptures, they should be disposed of carefully, as described in the list shown later in this article.
The large sculptures shown in the video above are certainly impressive. There are potential problems that aren't discussed in the video, however. The balloons come in plastic bags. In addition, once a sculpture has been admired and the balloons are deflated or deliberately burst, a lot of waste is created.
Mass Balloon Releases During Special Events
Another popular use of balloons is for a mass release into the air. This is an exciting, beautiful, and often very meaningful event. Balloons are released during happy celebrations, in memory of sad events, and as a way to honour the dead. They are also released to raise money for charities.
A special type of mass release is the balloon race. In this event, each balloon has a postcard attached. Each postcard identifies a specific competitor in the event. The goal of the event is for people to find the balloons when they land and return the postcards to the organizers. The person whose postcard travels the farthest is the winner.
What Happens to Released Balloons?
Balloon releases are fun, impressive, and sometimes emotionally satisfying, but they can create problems for animals. Balloons released into the air often rise high enough to burst and then return to the ground as tiny fragments or as bigger pieces that litter the land and water. Some don't burst and return in a semi-deflated state.
Latex balloons are generally used in mass releases. People who make their living from organizing the events like to point out that latex is degradable. The problem is that the degradation is slow, so a latex balloon or balloon fragment may harm wildlife before it breaks down. Another problem is that in some releases the balloons contain plastic valves, which are harmful for animals.
Balloons or fragments from them can block the digestive tracts of both land and ocean animals and cause them to starve. They can also block an animal's respiratory tract and cause suffocation. In the ocean, turtles are especially susceptible to being killed by balloons because they mistake them for their jellyfish prey. Whales, dolphins, birds, and farm animals have also died after eating balloons.
Although this article focuses on hazards for wildlife, balloons can also be dangerous for children. Balloons that are being blown up, deflated ones, and bits of burst balloons are a suffocation hazard for young children.
Alternate Ways to Celebrate Events
We really need to find other ways to celebrate or commemorate important events which appeal to people's emotions but don't harm the environment. Two environmentally friendly activities to commemorate a sad event are to plant a tree or to create a flower garden. A tree or a garden has the additional advantage of creating a lasting memorial for a loved one.
Celebrating a happy event with reusable items like ribbon streamers and flags could be great fun. It's important that the items can't escape into the air, though. Hiring balloon artists to create large and intricate sculptures could create some of the excitement that a mass release produces. (Hopefully the sculptor will discard balloon waste in a way that's safe for the environment.)
Another activity that could be fun is a balloon release in a large indoor area, such as a gym or a stadium. The clean-up and preparation for safe disposal of balloon pieces could be time consuming. The event could be much safer for the environment than an outdoor release, though. The presence of a large group of people after the celebration has finished could make the clean-up process easier.
Safety for Wildlife
Balloons are great toys and craft materials and they make fun and cheerful decorations for special events. However, they can create serious problems for wildlife. If you are concerned about the safety of wildlife, the following strategies are important:
- Buy only natural latex balloons and avoid foil or mylar ones. (Remember that even latex balloons need to be discarded with care.)
- Tie balloons by hand and not with string.
- Never release balloons into the air outdoors. If they're taken outside, hold on to them.
- If you must attach string to a balloon to hold it in place, use biodegradable cotton string and tie the balloon securely to its support.
- Don't attach ribbon or nylon string to balloons, since these can wrap around part of an animal's body, entangling or constricting it. This may prevent the animal from swallowing food, breathing, or moving properly. Cotton string has the same effect if it hasn't degraded.
- Buy air-filled balloons instead of helium-filled ones. Balloons filled with helium rise into the air quickly and are harder to catch than ones filled with air.
- Deflate balloons and cut them into small pieces before putting them into the garbage. This will be time consuming if a lot of balloons have been used, but it's important.
Balloons provide a lot of enjoyment. Luckily, it's possible to enjoy using them and to minimize the risk of hurting wildlife at the same time. If the safe removal of balloon material after a large event seems overwhelming, however, it would be better to find a different way to celebrate the occasion.
References and Resources
- YouTube has a great selection of balloon sculpture video tutorials. Search for "balloon twisting", "balloon modelling", or "balloon sculpture" to find the tutorials.
- Balloonhq.com has a web page about the history of balloons.
- Science World in Vancouver describes the background of balloons.
- Treehugger describes why balloon releases need to stop.
- Balloonsblow.org has a list of environmentally friendly alternatives to balloon releases.
© 2011 Linda Crampton