Helium balloons?
May 27, 2019 9:56 PM   Subscribe

Is it unethical to decorate a party with helium balloons?

There's a global helium shortage, but if I'm reading correctly, it seems like more of a supply chain / trade issue than an actual lack of the element.

Is it unethical to use helium to decorate for a party?
And if so, what's a good decorative and toddler-delighting substitute?
posted by nouvelle-personne to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Considering the issues of plastic waste clogging up the waterways and landfill, I think balloons are pretty inethical in 2019 more generally.

What about having some bubble mix for blowing bubbles instead? I think it would scratch a similar itch to balloons. You can diy the mixture, and buy high quality bubble blowing wands that will last for years instead of being disposable.
posted by lollusc at 10:05 PM on May 27, 2019 [16 favorites]

Agreed with above. Get a bubble machine to max out your toddler fun.
posted by Toddles at 10:07 PM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I promise you that buying party balloons—even a fuckton of party balloons—for a toddler’s birthday party will not even crack the top thousand in the list of unethical things you do in 2019.
posted by suncages at 11:03 PM on May 27, 2019 [46 favorites]

I agree, suncages, but on the other hand -- it's much easier to avoid buying balloons than to avoid, say, driving to work, or using up a disposable battery.
posted by amtho at 11:06 PM on May 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

Is it unethical to serve sausage pizza at the party? Is it unethical to use Chinese manufactured napkins? It is unethical to serve 6oz bottled water drinks at your party? At some point I think it is up to you to consider what you feel is ethical or not. I do not think, in any event, that one instance is going to ruin the world... you may change your mind five years from now. You should probably be OK. Helium ethics doesn't trump others, IMHO.
posted by newper at 11:46 PM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Agreed that there are bigger ethical issues out there, probably even around this one party...

But nthing bubble machines over helium bubbles. Back in my day of chaperoning toddlers to parties, helium balloons often seemed like a lot of fun, but very soon after the party ended they would turn out not to be. Everyone goes home with a balloon, but then someone lets go of the string & sobs as they watch it sail away... or they brush their balloon accidentally against the rose bush by the front door and then sob when it bursts... or they fight over whose balloon is whose on the back seat of the car while you're trying to drive home... or any one of the other balloon-mishaps that we've all seen.

Fun entertainer making balloon animals can be a winner. But pretty much your safest & cheapest balloon-fun is with bubble mix.
posted by rd45 at 12:13 AM on May 28, 2019 [8 favorites]

If you do have helium (or other) balloons, don’t let them go.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:18 AM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

There are always bigger issues, for sure. You're just one person, for sure. But, there is a helium shortage, it's a non-renewable resource. Neither it, nor balloons, are recyclable.

Just because a lot of people don't care, doesn't make it ethical. Just because there are other unethical things in the world, doesn't make it ethical. Just because it's a small thing, doesn't make it ethical.

I figure, you've got a choice here; you can make the world a little bit better, or a little bit worse. You're not gonna save the world, and you're not gonna condemn it either. But given choosing something else has no real cost? Why not make the world a better place?
posted by smoke at 4:41 AM on May 28, 2019 [19 favorites]

Maybe something like re-usable paper lanterns? If you're looking for something that has the same visual appeal of balloons (round, decoration, colorful) but isn't as bad for renewable resources. If you get or make some that you re-use, even better.

I like the bubbles idea for entertaining toddlers, but they don't fill the decoration part as much. A lot of the other decoration options - streamers, ribbons, etc. are generally one-shot items as well that just get trashed after the party.

I hate to declare balloons "unethical" but they're certainly not the best use of a limited natural resource. And balloon bits wind up in landfills or wildlife, so... I'd give them a miss.
posted by jzb at 4:50 AM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yes, in an abstract sense—helium is nonrenewable, and there are probably more critical uses for it besides inflating balloons. The balloons themselves are trash and hazardous to wildlife. If you tried to explain it to aliens who landed tomorrow, they would probably think it's a slightly absurd way of amusing children who would probably be just as amused by a dozen other decorations.

That said, by the same token any number of gifts you might give a kid are probably unethical, the petroleum you burn to get there is probably not ethical, to say nothing of the conflict minerals in the phone you'll use to organize it, any meat that you serve, etc. etc. You will go crazy pretty quickly if you constantly try to min/max your behavior at every possible turn; at some point you have to draw a line and decide what is acceptable behavior within the scope of your values and what tradeoffs you are willing to make. I do not think that is a question that can be answered a priori, or at least much better people than I have tried and failed to do so in a universally-compelling way. It has to be individually determined within the framework of your lived experience, your community's shared values, etc.

IMO, I think balloons are slightly outré at this point and probably will be more so in the future, but I also wouldn't even find it remarkable for someone to use them as decoration. I'd personally avoid and just use cardboard decorations and paper products, but that's just me. You can really go either way.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:27 AM on May 28, 2019

I view this feeling as part of a larger trend of taking individual responsibility for large problems that require coordinated action.

You are not going to accomplish or ruin anything by buying your kid a helium balloon or not.

If we cared about the helium shortage, we wouldn't make helium balloons as cheap and widely available a we have. As long as we do, your individual choice as a consumer are inconsequential.

Feel free to buy the balloon, unless forbidden by your own guilt management needs.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:00 AM on May 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I mean, you're not a bad person no matter what you do. Or at least you're no worse than the rest of us. If you make an interesting and alternate choice, you may inspire others to do the same, and not contribute to the normalization of crazed consumerism in children's parties. Maybe.
posted by stray at 7:53 AM on May 28, 2019

Mylar balloons are plastic so they don't biodegrade. However a mylar helium balloon stays flying a lot longer than a latex balloon (due to lower gas permeability), so makes better use of the helium and provides a longer
lasting toy or decoration. We tend to get out kid 1 mylar balloon for her party so she can remember it for longer, as they keep flying for weeks.
Mylar balloons can be recycled, but in the US the only centers that accept Mylar are in Oakland and San Jose, CA.

Latex balloons are biodegradeable but they break down quite slowly, taking up to a few years (many people online say they are not biodegradeable because of this, but the dictionary definition does not specify a timeline). They are a pest in the environment as animals will eat them, choke on them. Dispose of carefully, i.e. wrapped up in something so the balloons make it into landfill where they will eventually break down, and don't end up in the sea or blowing around.
posted by w0mbat at 9:10 AM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Spinners and pinwheels are also a popular substitute listed in articles on subbing out balloons.
posted by girlpublisher at 10:00 AM on May 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

As the parent of a teen let me tell you something I wish I had realized back when I was the parent of a toddler:

Reusable birthday decorations are AMAZING. That time and money you are spending picking out birthday decorations right now? You're going to spend it again every year. It's going to add up. And you are going to start dreading it.

Go out and get yourself a big bright fabric HAPPY BIRTHDAY flag, and some colorful, reusable fabric banners, in a style that will look equally at home at a 3-year-old's party and a 12-year-old's-- something simple that can go with various party themes. You can even make those cheap cardboard birthday banners reusable if you are careful. Get reusable paper or fabric lanterns, of the type you can easily collapse and store. It will cost more up front to do this but it will save you money-- and more importantly, aggravation-- in the long run, especially if you use the decorations for all the family birthdays and not just the kid's.

You can do this and still make each birthday party different, if you want to, by changing up the activities, the favors, and the food.

And yes, I agree wholeheartedly with everyone who said that toddlers love bubbles way more than balloons, and bubbles are less tantrum-provoking (bubbles are SUPPOSED to pop, and float away from you, yay!).

Toddlers also love cake and cookies. If you have enough dessert to go around, I guarantee no small child will leave your party begrudging a lack of balloons.
posted by BlueJae at 10:48 AM on May 28, 2019 [10 favorites]

Is it unethical to use helium to decorate for a party?

posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:44 PM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was just reading a blog post on this subject, on how to plan a young child's birthday party in a responsible, zero-waste way. I'm happy I can pass this one along to you!

Reading My Tea Leaves' Simple Birthday Parties

Thank you for being thoughtful and asking this question.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 10:56 PM on May 29, 2019

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