Tradition means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For some, their family traditions are elaborate, complicated affairs, complete with flights across the country and renting out lake houses. For others, a tradition can be as simple as getting takeout every Thursday.
For fans of the Nebraska Huskers, tradition has meant releasing about 5,000 red helium balloons at each home football game for about 80 years now. Before now, the biggest threat to the balloon release was a helium shortage in 2012 which resulted in about 3,000 less balloons at a few games.
But in recent years, students, staff and the UNL community have banded together to voice their opposition to the tradition. While some still maintain that the community value in the practice of releasing about 1,250 cubic feet of helium in 5,000 red latex balloons outweighs the environmental costs, I am not one of them.
There are environmental consequences that stem directly from the Husker balloon release. The most commonly cited occurrence is people who find balloons with the Nebraska logo in places as far away as Michigan and New York. The university claims these balloons are “biodegradable latex,” proponents of which often explain that they break down at the same rate as an oak leaf — which happens to take several years. An anti-balloon activist group has documented the decomposition of one balloon since 2011 and found that the balloon was still partially intact 5 years after they found it.
And the helium shortage of 2012, which threatened the balloon tradition, isn’t just a thing of the past. Helium demand has increased and gas suppliers struggle to keep up with the demand amidst supply chain shortages and COVID-19 lockdowns. This doesn’t just mean less air in balloons — helium is regularly used in medical treatments, hospital machines and other technology.
Of course, Husker balloons aren’t the sole cause of the helium shortage. But when you’re releasing 5,000 balloons seven times a year, that adds up to about 8,750 cubic feet of helium. That’s enough helium to lift around 603 pounds, or an adult male grizzly bear. 8,750 cubic feet that could be used to treat asthma or cool jet engines.
Still, for some, these latex litterings and helium hardships aren’t reason enough to do away with a longstanding tradition. Some may even argue that getting rid of the balloon release is “virtue signaling” when we could be focusing on issues such as the plastic bottles sold at Husker football games which will likely never decompose. They’re not wrong. In a way, it is virtue signaling. But getting rid of plastic water bottles would be virtue signaling too.
We should absolutely focus on phasing out single-use plastics. But that doesn’t mean we get to keep other environmentally harmful traditions just because they have more sentimental value to us. Instead of releasing 5,000 balloons after the first touchdown, some have proposed alternatives such waving red rally towels, which hasn’t been met with much enthusiasm. For any Husker home game, you can download the Husker Lights app that synchronizes your phone with the light shows throughout the game. Plus, whether our next tradition includes towels or lights, it won’t be as awkward when our first touchdown gets reversed and there are still balloons floating around the stadium.
I understand that the balloon release is sentimental. That it’s been going on for a long time. But just because we’ve been doing something for a long time is not a reason to ignore criticism. In fact, it’s a reason to reevaluate all of our customs, from plastic water bottles to helium-filled latex balloons.
The university has shown incredible adaptability when it comes to COVID-19, changing protocols and practices to ensure the safety of UNL students. To ensure the safety of students, their future families and the environment, the university should get rid of the balloon release tradition.
Sydney Miller is a senior psychology major. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.