The inflatable latex balloon was invented 200 years ago by the English physicist Michael Faraday. They did not fly to well initially, but by now, they have been improved to the point that they can stay afloat for as long as a week. In the end, however, they still must come down and that is when they become an environmental problem.
…Must Come Down
At many major public events the world over, like festivals, political conventions and sports games, it is customary to let up gayly colored balloons by the thousands for the grand finale. There is something deeply joyous in watching them disappear in the great expanse of the sky. It is like perfect freedom. But once back on the ground, the deflated remains are often taken for food by animals. That does not do them any good and often even kills them. Many balloons are made of bio-degradable latex, but the process is too slow to prevent such mishaps. This is happening on such a grand scale, that concerned organizations, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Unesco among them, are urging a stop to the practice.
Down the Drain
Many balloons come down in the ocean. There, they drift toward one of the two Pacific gyres, known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patches”, where they join millions of tons of other flotsam, most of it plastic waste. The garbage not only kills animals directly when they eat it, but also indirectly and more perniciously, because it prevents sunlight from penetrating into the water and so erodes the very foundation of the food chain.
The mess is huge. The tiny island of Henderson, one of the remote Pitcairn Islands, was recently found to be strewn with plastic debris, about a million pieces of it, in spite of the fact that it is uninhabited and thousands of miles away from the closest human settlement.
Scrubbing the Ocean
However, Dutch inventor Boyan Slat has developed a retrieval method. His company, Ocean Cleanup, has surveyed the gyres meticulously from below and from above and claims it can reduce the mass by half in 5 years. At the core of the system is a V-shaped pair of mile-long floating tubes by which, in combination with judicious use of the ocean currents themselves, the debris can be brought to a central location. From there, it can be picked up by ships and brought back to shore. The company’s scheme has attracted many millions of dollars from investors. A turn-around is in sight, although what has to be done with all that debris once on land is still an open question.
Starbursts and Sparks
Another way to end an event in a joyous manner is with fireworks, of course. No 4th of July can be without it and it won’t be long before the fireworks sale booths will make their annual appearance. This is probably a good time to remind ourselves that it is wildfire season and that conditions this year are dryer than usual. The path to disaster is very short. A few weeks ago a Border Patrol agent accidentally started a huge wildfire in the Coronado National Forest just practicing his marksmanship, for instance. A cigarette butt thrown out of the car can easily do the same. As a matter of fact, the car itself can do so too if parked over a dry patch of grass. So please, for all our sakes, mind your fire. Make sure any open fire is completely extinguished, no matter how small or large it is, before you leave it behind!
A Case of Accidental Fire
A sad case of accidental fire occurred in Australia recently. Australia is even more concerned about biosecurity than the US. A collection of rare plants dating to the early 19th century, on loan from museums in France and New Zealand to Australian scientists for comparative studies, was incinerated by Australian customs officials who thought safe is better than sorry. It is true that it had been sitting around for a while, but it would have been a lot safer if they had notified the scientists first of their intention. They also claim that the error occurred because the value was not indicated on the package. Probably because it was priceless.
A happy and scorch-free Memorial Day to all!
The Weekly Green airs on Monday 5:55 PM, Tuesday 4:55 AM, Wednesday 9:55 AM & 5:55 PM, Thursday 7:55 PM and Saturday 9:55 AM. First airing is usually at 10 am on Wednesday.