I was in the grocery store the other day when my children started to pester me for a balloon. I briefly considered it, and then looked at the price tag:
$10 for one balloon.
It seems the market price for helium, which has long been way too cheap, is finally beginning to reflect the scarcity of this precious element. In fact, the BBC reports that some scientists are calling for an end to helium-filled party balloons all together, arguing that it's just too wasteful a thing to do with a non-renewable resource. From cooling super-conducting magnets in MRI scanners to making computer chips, there are some important industrial uses for helium that would be left compromised if we ever do run out.
Of course helium isn't the only resource being squandered at your typical children's party. From excess gift wrap to disposable plastic or paper plates, there are many good reasons to plan a green party for the kids. But helium is particularly problematic.
Here's more from the BBC article to explain why:
Some scientists believe a finite resource that could one day run out should not be used for party balloons. In the universe as a whole, it is one of the commonest elements, second only to hydrogen in its abundance. On Earth it is relatively rare, and one of the few elements that escapes gravity and leaks away into space.
"All of the other elements we've scattered around the globe, maybe we can go digging in garbage dumps to get them back," says chemist Andrea Sella, of University College London (UCL). "But helium is unique. When it's gone it is lost to us forever."
As is the fashion for online news articles, I was going to write a roundup of greener alternatives. But there really is only one: air.
True, your kids' balloon won't float in the same cool way, but it won't float away either. And you won't be able to amuse yourselves with silly, squeaky voices. But you can use the money you save on a $10 balloon to buy some more chocolate for the kids, or some beer for the adults.
Surely everyone is happy then? Except the balloon industry, of course, but it turns out they've got some pretty neat ideas for non-helium related balloon action, too. Check out Sandi Masoru, balloon expert with Balloon Utopia, for a lowdown on the whole issue: