Stellies balloon release tradition goes out with a bang

(Supplied by Stellenbosch University)
(Supplied by Stellenbosch University)

Cape Town - A Stellenbosch University tradition of releasing thousands of helium balloons carrying the hopes and dreams of first years has fallen, thanks to a campaign by environmentalists.

Student Representative Council (SRC) spokesperson James de Villiers said students and anti-balloon-release lobbyists had begged them not to go ahead with the release of 5 000 balloons for their popular Dream Launch last Thursday.

Environmental campaigner and extreme open water swimmer Lewis Pugh was among those who campaigned against it. He posted pictures on social media of a penguin and other sea life tangled up in rubber and string.

At the 11th hour, the SRC changed the way the fundraiser had traditionally been done.

On Thursday, instead of releasing the balloons into the crisp Stellenbosch air, the students used lung power to blow them up and had a wild popping session on the Coetzenburg sports grounds, then put the balloon fragments into the university's recycling bins.

"I am very, very grateful to the group for warning us," said De Villiers. '"And it was a great lesson for me personally."

The furore over the balloon release started last year, when the university put out a statement saying that only balloons made of biodegradable rubber were used and that they broke into very small pieces, reducing decomposition time.

But concerned students pressed on, backed by Pugh and others. They approached the SRC and the university's management to explain that there is no research to say that balloons do not damage the environment.

De Villiers said they listened and turned the fundraiser into an opportunity to create awareness about damage to the environment.

They decided that students would blow the balloons up themselves, write their dream for the future on them, and then sit on them, stamp on them, dive into them to burst them.

In the process they would also take an unofficial stab at the Guinness World Record for the most balloons popped at once.

The funds raised would, as usual, go into a fund for community development projects around Stellenbosch.

The Western Cape department of the environment also sent them an e-mail after the event, warning them that they might be infringing several environmental laws with the release.

"That made me feel glad that we had not been stubborn, and just gone ahead," said De Villiers.

Pugh was delighted at the decision.

"Balloons simply pollute and kill wildlife," he wrote on his Twitter account.

Pugh, dubbed the "Human Polar Bear," swims in extremely cold waters to raise awareness of dangers to the environment.

He was invited to the mass popping to add his voice to the new message, but could not make it, said De Villiers.

The Stellenbosch decision comes on the heels of broader warnings not to release Chinese lanterns because of the serious fire risk they pose.

Last year, a Chinese lantern is believed to have caused a large fire at the Rietvlei Nature Reserve in Table View during Guy Fawkes in November.

Thirty seven species of bird live in the reserve as well as the Large Grey Mongoose and the Cape Grysbok.

The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) research and rescue centre was in immediate danger and birds and penguins had to be evacuated.

It took firefighters days to put the fire out completely.

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