By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – A Nebraska environmentalist has started a petition on change.org urging University of Nebraska officials to end the five-decade-old tradition of releasing thousands of red balloons after the first touchdown of every Husker football game.
“Releasing balloons to celebrate the first touchdown at Husker football games is nothing short of mass littering — punishable by fines most everywhere else — and the practice kills wildlife while polluting Nebraska and states thousands of miles away,” petition promoter Benjamin Vogt wrote on his blog Tuesday. “This is not a tradition worth keeping if we love Nebraska, our home.”
The petition says the “supposedly biodegradable latex” Husker balloons travel hundreds to thousands of miles, posing a risk of ensnaring wildlife with their ribbons.
“We believe such a tradition that celebrates the community spirit of Husker football, Lincoln, and Nebraska is in fact undermining the place we treasure, value, and call home,” the petition says. “New traditions need to be established that celebrate the total community of our state and region that we love.”
Vogt and his wife found a game balloon that landed in their garden after a September 2012 football game that was supposed to be part of a final sendoff to the tradition, dating to the 1940s, of releasing 4,000 to 5,000 balloons post-touchdown. The practice was going to be suspended that year due to a global helium shortage, until NU officials reevaluated (surely in part due to the public outcry) and ultimately resumed releasing balloons, albeit about half as many.
He and his wife buried the balloon in a vegetable bed to see how long it would take to decompose, then dug it out in December 2013. The balloon was intact with no holes or fading.
They put it back in the dirt for another nine months, and recently retrieved it again on Sunday, the day after a couple thousand balloons were released during the NU-Miami game. Sure enough, the string and balloon were still intact.
“The latex does feel more brittle, and the ink is now crackled. But, the balloon has yet to decompose, even after two years,” Vogt’s wife wrote on his blog.
The University of Nebraska Athletics office responded to the petition Wednesday by releasing a statement saying it is also concerned about the environment, and for that reason uses natural latex biodegradable balloons with cotton strings.
“Research shows that latex balloons are safer because they are made from organic materials that begin to break down immediately and shatter into small pieces within about three hours of release, or after rising about five miles into the air,” said Chris Anderson, director of community relations for the athletic department, via email.
“Because we care about our environment, we will continue to use only latex biodegradable balloons, cotton strings and will closely monitor research in this area,” she said.
But the Vogts disputed the university’s claim that the balloons shatter into pieces too small for animals to eat.
“The reality is that while the balloons may indeed shatter, the pieces are not impossible for animals to eat,” the blogger wrote. “In fact, the fringe of shattered latex balloons mimics the shape of jellyfish, a favorite meal for many ocean animals (in addition, fish, birds, and other kinds of aquatic life also see pieces as food).”
Vogt teaches English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and owns a native plant garden coaching and design business, Monarch Gardens. His 2,000-square-foot organic prairie garden has been featured in Nebraska newspapers and TV reports. He has also been a speaker at Ignite Lincoln and Tedx.
Two Florida sisters who got tired of finding balloons while cleaning up beaches run an anti-balloon-release nonprofit called Balloons Blow that has lobbied the university for years to end the balloon release. Releasing thousands of balloons into the sky doesn’t “jive with UNL’s supposed sustainability efforts,” they say.
They say NU’s claim the balloons are biodegradable is “ludicrous.”
“These latex balloons are the type most commonly found in the stomachs of dead animals, as their fallen remains mimic their food,” they said in an email to Watchdog.
Not surprisingly, the petition has gone over like a lead balloon with some Husker fans:
@DeenaNEWatchdog I knew that was going to come some day….. hip hop hogwash is back
— Mike (@Mike_the_Bandit) September 24, 2014
— David W. (@dchuskerfan) September 24, 2014
While others lauded the petition:
— Dillon Thoms (@dillon_thoms) September 24, 2014
Updated 1 p.m. Wednesday
Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog
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