It's time to let the balloons go – but NOT literally

By Kirstin Buick
26 January 2016

It was a tradition at Stellenbosch University to release thousands of helium balloons into the air to symbolise the hopes and dreams of their first years taking flight. A beautiful gesture? Not even close, says environmentalist Lewis Pugh.

The 'human polar bear', who is famous for his highly-publicised swims in freezing waters to draw attention to environmental issues, actively campaigned against the university's plans for over a year.

“Using [helium] for this purpose is a waste,” the maritime law expert told YOU. “Helium is a rare element and resources are limited. It’s also used in medicine, technology and communications. Helium can’t be manufactured.”

Thanks to Lewis' social media campaign and the external pressure drummed up as a result, the tradition was canned. Instead, the students blew up balloons themselves and indulged in a wild popping session on the Coetzenburg sports ground, before putting the bits and pieces of balloon into the university's recycling bins.

“The fines [for releasing helium balloons en mass] are considerable – up to R10 million and/or 10 years’ imprisonment," Lewis explains. "In effect this campaign will lead to the termination of mass balloon releases in South Africa.”

And helium supplies are becoming exhausted. Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson warned in 2010 that this valuable product is far too cheap and isn’t respected as the valuable resource that it is. Some natural gases contain helium but it’s expensive to filter it out. What about the balloon itself? Most balloons are made from the same plastic that ends up as rubbish.

“Sometimes animals eat discarded balloons, which leads to starvation. Or balloons suffocate the animals,” Lewis says.

This fact is proven by many photographs. Even the strings tied to balloons have led to many animals becoming entangled and dying.

“The strings can lead to choking or starvation. It’s all extremely unpleasant,” Lewis says.

“It’s a tragic death for an animal but the most damage is done by the fact that discarding waste in the atmosphere, on land and in the sea has become normal.

“It creates an attitude of disrespect for the environment and ignores the impact mass balloon releases has on wild animals and the farming and fishing communities.”

Environmentally friendly ways of celebrating

“Plant a tree. Blow bubbles. Have a party. Play drums, dance and sing. There are many better ways to celebrate than to pollute the environment,” Lewis says.

Flags, banners and dancing blow-up figures can be just as much fun. Kites can also boost any pleasurable activity. Or what about a wild flower seed bomb?

The road ahead Lewis will soon be leaving for Antarctica as part of his battle to have the Ross Sea declared a protected marine area, the equivalent of a national park. “The Ross Sea is the most unspoilt ecosystem on the planet.” We'll follow the extreme swimming champion's latest adventure here.

Additional sources: moneyweek.com, newscientist.com, rsc.org, bbc.com, rspca.org.uk, timeslive.co.za

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