Who’s Releasing Balloons and Why

While releasing helium-filled balloons into the air is sometimes accidental, it is often pre-planned.  Schools, associations, businesses, families, community groups

and sport venues across the globe purchase mass quantities of helium-filled latex and/or foil balloons, transport them to a selected site, and then release them into the air. These mass releases of balloons are conducted as part of:

Balloon release in Virginia Beach. Image by Jacqueline Thornton

  • Weddings
  • Sporting events
  • Graduations
  • Political rallies
  • Store openings
  • Memorials and funerals
  • Marketing or public relations events
  • Charity events
  • At car dealerships (when balloons are cut from the cars at the end of the day)

In other cases, balloons are accidentally (or purposefully) released in small quantities:

  • During or after a party
  • Handed out at stores or restaurants
  • Fairs and carnivals

Multi-year research conducted by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and Clean Virginia Waterways into the reasons why balloons are released is detailed in the report Balloon Release Research in Virginia and Reducing Balloon Debris (Witmer et al., 2017).

Pie Chart of Reasons for Balloon Releases based on a public survey conducted in Virginia

According to a Community-Based Social Marketing Research Project conducted by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University, there are many reasons why people make the decision to release balloons.More than 50% of balloon releases are done at “sad” events—memorials and funerals.

Balloon releases are also planned as part of “Happy” events, including weddings, graduations, parties, sporting events, and charity benefits (fundraisers and events to raise awareness). Additional balloons are released by businesses—including car dealerships and realty companies—at the end of a day.

Pie Chart of the reasons for balloon release based on a national media analysis

Balloon releases are planned by associations, families and schools, with women planning about 85% of releases!

WHERE are balloon releases held? They are most likely to take place at schools, parks  churches and other houses of worship, homes or private property, cemeteries, and community centers.

WHY are balloons released? The sight of balloons rising into the sky provokes strong emotions. But if balloon releases are not done as part of a ceremony, participants find a release lacking any meaning—indicating that the ceremony may be the more important part of the balloon release for those participating.

Also, many people do not understand that no balloon is “environmentally friendly,” and that every released balloon becomes litter and can be harmful. Some who are aware that balloons are litter and of their impact, justify or rationalize their actions.

People assume “biodegradable” means “harmless”. And some rural residents think their distance from the ocean makes balloon releases acceptable.

Witmer, V., Register, K., & McKay, L. (2017). Balloon Release Research in Virginia and Reducing
Balloon Debris through Community-Based Social Marketing. Virginia Coastal Zone Management
Program (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality).