Sic transit gloria


I know I will get accused of being a spoilsport, but: can we please ban foiletti – and their cousins, metallic party balloons?

Governments in the UK have recently moved to ban “single use” plastics. The Scottish Government has positionined itself as leading the way in this respect. As part of the fanfare surrounding COP26, it announced legislation, intended to come into effect on 1st June 2022, that will ban the production and use of items including: plastic cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers and balloon sticks; food containers made of expanded polystyrene; and cups and other beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, including their covers and lids. Circular Economy Minister Lorna Slater described this as “another step forward in the fight against plastic waste and throwaway culture.”

Surely foiletti, and metallic party balloons, are among the most egregious examples of single use plastics and a polluting, throwaway culture?

I haven’t been to many weddings or childrens parties recently (who has?) – so I have to admit I was completely unaware of foiletti until just last summer.  I first found some on the pavement outside the Scouts’ Hall on Friday, 13th August, 2021.

Rose gold foiletti by a rusty standpoint

I didn’t know what they were – small, coppery discs of plastic film, about 1 cm diameter, glittering in the sun. I picked up a half dozen and put them in my pocket. I guessed they might be modern confetti, and Hannah confirmed that she had seen things like it, released from a burst helium balloon at a child’s party. I couldn’t quite believe that something quite so environmentally unfriendly had been created and successfully marketed as an alternative to rice, flower petals and paper confetti.

I did a bit of internet research, trying to find out about them: how and where they are made, who the biggest suppliers are, where the raw materials are sourced from, and so on. It was easy to find who the biggest suppliers in the UK are, less easy to find where they are actually manufactured and where the raw materials are sourced from, so impossible to estimate a carbon footprint.

I thought they might be aluminised mylar (something I’m familiar with from my former life as a physicist) and found I was right. They’re basically made out of plastic film (usually PET or polypropylene), vapour-coated with a thin layer of metal – often aluminium but other metals can be used, including nickel and chromium. It’s a mixed material and so not that easy to recycle – it is possible, and the somewhat questionable Terracycle have partnered with UK firm the Card Factory to offer a used foil balloon collection and recycling service.

Leaving aside any uncertainties about the destination of plastics that end up in such recycling services, there seems to be a basic flaw in the model.  Balloons are often deliberately or accidentally released into the sky. Foiletti are bought to be thrown at people, apparently in an expression of joy. We buy them quite literally to throw away, often outside, with no chance of gathering them up at the end of whatever the celebration is and dutifully taking them to a recycling point. So what happens to them?

In the nine months since I first spotted the foiletti on the pavement across the road from my flat, the same foiletti have continued to make appearances at the edge of kerbs, in gutters, slowly migrating away from their original site. Now that I’m attuned to their existence, I’ve found them and their kin almost everywhere – on campus, in the sand at the kids’ playground, in the grass by the river Ness:

Foil stars glitter in the grass by the river Ness.

on a deserted road in the remote Scottish island of Coll:

Foiletti on the roadside on Coll

on the beach at Dunbar, on the Back Walk and by Stirling Community Food. Lately, I’ve been finding a variety of stars, often in the town centre, but including these two, a few metres apart, on the Kersebonny Rd near the village of Cambusbarron:

Bedraggled star

Less bedraggled star

(I’ve been singing “Catch a falling star” a lot, as I put them in my pocket.) Most recently (and most inexplicably), I found a newly released swarm, clustering around the two ends of an underpass, along with some empty fast food packaging and discarded bottles of pop:

Golf foiletti by an underpass

And foil balloons – well, it seems we can hardly go for a walk round here without finding them, or their remnants.  We’ve found gold, copper and silver stars; red love hearts; shining metal circles and numbers; rainbows; even silver-striped zebra foil. Here are just a few:

Balloon on the Antonine Wall

Coloured balloon

Blue balloon in farmland

Another punctured balloon

Some places seem more popular hang-outs than others, with balloons gathering together for their own party, like this group on the edge of Stirling’s King’s Park:

Balloons hanging around together

Red balloon in tree

They’ve been there at least two weeks now – this lot are hardcore.

And what will happen to them next? Well, the material is extremely durable – it’s what early satellite communication balloons were made out of, big inflatable balloons sent up into space to orbit the earth and act as giant reflectors.  It doesn’t biodegrade or decay. It may tear and break up into smaller bits, but it wll never break down.

It’s also very light. Balloons and foilettii are constantly in transit. They drift through the air until caught in a tangle of branches, punctured and snagged in the undergrowth, ditch-bedraggled. They flutter about, ending up in fields and ditches, gutters and drains, passing into our rivers, our lakes, our seas and our beaches. Presumaly they end up in the bellies of fish and birds.

I referred to foiletti and balloons in our COP26 bite-sized lecture and foiletti are the main characters in All Souls Day, but perhaps because they have been so present in my walking and thinking, I forgot to speak about them directly before now. But maybe now is the time: let’s ban foiletti.

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