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What the Heck Are Balloon Sticks and Why Is England Banning Them?

This seems highly specific.

Balloon sticks.
Heatmap Illustration/Walmart

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak may be rolling back the United Kingdom’s plans to phase out the sale of gas-powered cars and space heaters, but England is forging ahead with sweeping bans on single-use plastic. Starting October 1, it will be illegal for businesses in England to distribute non-reusable plastic plates, bowls, or cutlery. Certain types of styrofoam cups and food containers are also banned. Also, inexplicably, balloon sticks.

WTF is a balloon stick? This is the question I had when I received a press release this morning from Business Waste UK, a commercial waste hauling company, which informed me that eight out of 10 party shops “can't get down with the idea” of banning plastic balloon sticks, according to its research. I am not a parent, and I haven’t been a balloon-impressed child for quite some time, so excuse me if I’m terribly out of the loop on this. But apparently many party retailers sell plastic rods that attach to the knot of a balloon, so the balloon looks like it’s floating even if it’s not filled with helium.

That actually sounds pretty clutch. I recently learned, while reporting on the potential discovery of a room temperature superconductor, that helium is a finite resource, and we’re running out of it. Liquid helium is essential to cooling down the very hot superconductors inside MRI machines, and doctors are worried about a global shortage. Not to be a party pooper, but it seems more criminal to be filling balloons with helium than levitating them on plastic sticks.

I mean, ideally we don’t do either, and that might be the direction the balloon industry is going in anyway, at least in the U.K. Helen Garrett, the owner of the party supply company Creative Decorations, wrote in a blog post in 2020 that she has changed all of her plastic balloon sticks to paper balloon holders. Business Waste UK cites the post as an example that “alternatives are already hitting the market,” meaning there’s no need for a ban.

What’s especially mysterious is that in May, a U.K. committee that assesses the quality of evidence and analysis used to inform government regulations, published a mixed report on the proposal to ban plastic balloon sticks. While the committee deemed the rule “fit for purpose,” it also questioned the underlying need to prohibit balloon sticks, writing that the government’s impact assessment “fails to make a clear case for what the precise problem to be addressed is in relation to plastic balloon sticks specifically.”

I couldn't find the impact assessment referenced online, but I did find this 2018 assessment commissioned by the U.K. government which concluded that “the case for banning plastic balloon sticks appears tenuous.” The report found that they are a comparably small volume product next to plastic plates or cutlery, and there’s little evidence they’re a significant source of litter.

The ban is part of a broader pledge by the U.K. government, made back in 2018, to “eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042.” It’s not like balloon sticks are the first to go. Retailers have already been forced to charge customers for single-use plastic bags since 2015, a policy that has reportedly led to a 98% drop in use in England. The U.K has also cleansed many of its products of microbeads and banned plastic straws, stirrers, and plastic-stemmed cotton swabs. Apparently cotton swab sticks were one of the top 10 types of plastic found littered on beaches, but after the ban in 2020, they dropped lower on the list.

Plastic takes hundreds of years to break down, is harmful to species “across all levels of biology,” and is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Balloon sticks certainly sound like an “avoidable” form of plastic waste, or at the very least, a dispensable one. But I do wonder why they’ve been singled out. I mean, what about those little plastic pull tabs that come on milk cartons? Or those plastic circles inside water bottle caps? Or, as Business Waste UK points out, what about the millions of crisp packets thrown away every day, “creating as many items of waste in 24 hours as balloon sticks do in 365 days.”

What about balloons themselves?

Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.


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