Whilst it seems staggering today, at one time it was perfectly acceptable to kill elephants for their ivory.
Before the invention of plastic, ivory was used ornamentally and practically. It was considered a great material by manufacturers.
Amongst other things ivory was employed to make cutlery handles, billiard balls, piano keys, Scottish bagpipes and buttons. It was even utilised by the shipbuilding industry. Artefacts recovered from RMS Titanic show that ivory was used 'below stairs' to label switches. Today the idea of killing animals for their ivory is no longer environmentally nor socially unacceptable.
As time passes, attitudes can change. Just before Christmas 2016 this was clearly indicated when 280 balloons were released.
In 2008 Radio City 2 - a radio station in Liverpool, England - started annually releasing hundreds of balloons (with messages attached) from the roof of the Radio City 2 "in memory of loved ones that we miss at Christmas time."
Pete Price, the presenter of 'Remember A Loved One At Christmas' told the Liverpool Echo on the 19 December 2013, "I’ve been doing this now for five years, it’s sad but magical, and brings so much comfort to so many. The day before Christmas Eve, we have a team of people answering the phones taking messages to tie to the balloons, also putting callers on air to tell listeners their story, some of which are heartbreaking.
We attempt to get as many onto the balloons as possible. At midnight on the dot we release them from the top of the tower and watch them float towards the stars, then we have two hours of beautiful music to reflect on happier times when these people were in our lives and we could get a hug, kiss and a smile.
The programme has become a focal point for reflection, and people go to St George’s Plateau to watch and down the Pier Head as well. A lot of people on the Wirral make their way down to the Birkenhead Ferry, and even if they can’t see the balloons released, the programme is a comfort to them and helps them get through the pain of Christmas without their loved ones.
My last balloon is always for Hilda, my mum. A woman like so many millions of mums that put their children on a pedestal. Christmas is a painful time for so many, and we will never be able to fill the gap left behind in our lives. Maybe if you join me on Monday, it might bring some comfort."
Christmas is a key time of the year when families come together and socially mark the festivities. For the bereaved the idea of facing this traditionally happy event alone or whilst grieving can be truly daunting, hence I can understand why Price's programme is so popular. It can bring comfort at a dark time. However releasing hundreds of balloons to "send a message to heaven" is no longer environmentally or socially acceptable.
Dangerous pieces of litter
When Helium filled balloons – a key gas for operating medical scanners and a finite resource – are released en masse, they don't just simply disappear. All released balloons, including those falsely marketed as 'biodegradable latex', can travel hundreds of miles.
In his 2013 interview with the Liverpool Echo, Pete Price confirmed this fact by stating that at least one of his Radio City 2 balloon had reached mainland Europe, "One year, a couple of months after we had done this, we received a phone call from Norway. A gentlemen was out walking with his son and dog through the woods near to his home. He was telling us the snow drifts were really bad when his son spotted the remnants of a balloon hanging from the branch of a tree with a message."
The released balloons eventually float back down to earth, either whole or in pieces, polluting remote and untouched environments or adding to existing litter. Farming and conservation groups, such as the UK based Marine Conservation Society have therefore been demanding a ban on the mass releases of balloons and Chinese lanterns because of the deadly threat they pose to livestock and other marine and wildlife.
"Balloons are mistaken for food by many species of wildlife. Once balloons have been eaten they can block digestive systems and cause animals to starve. The string on balloons can also entangle and trap animals", stated a spokesman from the MCS.
Under current legislation because the balloon is 'let go', ie it is not dropped, it is not classed as litter despite the fact that what goes up, must come back down! It is no surprise that environmental lobbyists want to see this legalised fly-tipping banned.
Scuba divers respond
Scuba divers are unique. We get to see what is in our oceans, seas, rivers, streams, ponds and waterways. Not everyone does. And as a community we instantly get the concept behind the idea of remembering a lost loved one at Christmas, because of the nature of our sport.
Hence the scuba divers reacted hard and fast to the Marine Conservation Society's Facebook post that Radio City 2 planned to release of 1,000 balloons on 22 December 2016.
"So, here's the thing - a radio station in Liverpool, Radio City 2 will be releasing a 1,000 red balloons with attached messages later.
We've asked them and their presenter Pete Price, during who's show this will happen at 10pm tonight, to rethink this mad idea - which is just littering up and as we know will endanger wildlife via entanglement & choking. Pop over to our Twitter account to see all the comments @mcsuk. Sadly, despite the masses of tweets full of evidence opposing this event - it looks like it'll still go ahead. Utter madness. Liverpool Echo News Liverpool City Council - is there nothing to be done?"
Divers and environmentally savvy members of the public passionately lobbied Radio City 2, Pete Price and Creation Events, advocating that the planned balloon release should be cancelled. Radio City 2, Price and Creation Events did not handle their responses nor act in an optimal manner.
Plea falls on deaf ears
On 24 December 2016 Pete Price posted a photo of mass balloons on his Twitter account (@PeteCityPrice) with the caption "Happy Christmas every body [sic] xxx it's nearly Christmas Eve". At the same time he blocked everyone who posted on @PeteCityPrice asking him to do the right thing and stop the planned balloon release. I too was blocked after posting "A perfect way to 'remember a loved one'? @PeteCityPrice @Creation_Events Balloon releases = mass littering & wildlife deaths. #PlasticOcean"
It was abundantly clear that the balloon provider - Creation Events - a Merseyside event decorating company, had certainly violated the BAPIA (Balloon and Party Industry Alliance) Code of Practice. "No ribbons or strings should be attached to the balloons". Creation Events responded to all public contact by burying their head in the sand. They temporarily disabling their Twitter account and deleted any environmental comment posted to their business Facebook page.
Meanwhile Radio City 2 published the following naive statement on their Facebook page. "Thanks for your messages ahead of tonight’s balloon release as part of Pete Price’s show on Radio City 2. This has been responsibly planned in conjunction with the authorities and we will review ahead of next year, as we do with all our activities. Thank you for all your feedback." This statement provoked 429 comments and 50 shares.
It was obvious to everyone watching this awful event unfold that Radio City 2, Pete Price and Creation Events were not listening. And, to make matters worse, they seemingly couldn't comprehend why the public were protesting so vehemently about this environmental vandalism. We were left with no choice.
Time to talk to the adults
Radio City 2 is owned by Bauer Media Group. This German based media company manages a portfolio of more than 600 magazines and 50 radio and TV stations worldwide. I, along with Adam Hanlon, editor of Wetpixel contacted Cat Martin, Communications Director of Bauer Media (Radio) and asked her about Radio City 2's weasel words and cavalier attitude to the environment.
Martin confirmed that plans had been put in place in September 2016 for the Christmas balloon release. "The advice we received from the authorities was to contact a number of parties regarding this activity. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) were contacted first for permission to release the balloons from the top of the Radio City Tower. This was done in writing and a response was received detailing some practical stipulations about the balloons that were going to be released. The CAA also asked us to clear this with Liverpool John Lennon Airport which was done initially in November and then again just before the planned release on the night of December 22nd.
After a further meeting at the beginning of December, air-traffic control were contacted and our plans were detailed to them. We also notified Merseyside Police (as in previous years, in case anybody mistakes the balloon release for anything else in the night sky)."
Sensible alternatives to balloon releases
What alternatives are there to balloon releases? Two blogs - '2minutebeachclean' and 'Balloons blow' - have a number of environmentally friendly suggestions that can celebrate a life in a way that doesn’t harm any other lives including:
- Plant a tree: it will last many lifetimes and will support more life
- Throw wild flower bombs: again they create more life, and a riot of colour to make you smile for years to come
- Float flowers on the water: a powerful way to let go by watching petals float away
- Blow bubbles into the breeze: for another eco-friendly way to watch a soul pass
- Transform an unwanted space: roundabouts and verges could use a little of your love. Watch new life grow
Bauer Media responds
In my email dated 23 December 2016 to Cat Martin I made the following requests. "I would be most grateful if you could please consider reviewing the Bauer Media balloon release policy. It would be great to see Bauer Media issue a statement along the lines that all the brands you manage will no longer condone balloon releases as of 1st January 2017. It would also be good to see Radio City 2 publish a full apology for their actions last night and donate the same amount of funds to the MCS to help tackle the aftermath of balloon releases."
Cat Martin confirmed in writing to both Adam Hanlon and myself that Bauer Media had taken on board the comments, concerns and feedback regarding the environmental impact of the 22nd December 2016 balloon release. The company would therefore conduct "a full review of the balloon release and seek advice from experts in this field to establish an alternative way to conduct an important and touching tribute to the much missed loved-ones of the people of Liverpool."
Cat Martin send me a further email on Christmas Eve where she announced a new policy.
"Radio City and other Bauer brands will not be undertaking any future balloon releases. Following the balloon release, we plan to make a donation to Greenpeace to support environmental championing in acknowledgement of the feedback we received. Charity donations are personal to the company or the individual making the donation and Greenpeace is the chosen charity in this instance.
We will be considering all the options available to us in terms of commemorating lost loved ones in 2017 - thanks for your suggestions, I will pass them onto our producers."
The environment wins?
2017 starts on a positive note with the Bauer Media Group no longer condoning balloon releases. It is great see that the voice of scuba divers has had a positive effect and something good has come from a bad situation.
But the story does not end there. It would be even better if the UK Government responded to this problem.
Currently there is a petition running calling for balloon releases to be banned. Please take a moment to sign it, and pass the link on to others. We need to get 65,000 signatures by 18th March 2018 in order for this petition to be considered for debate in Parliament. Get clicking and sharing folks!