When it comes to Thanksgiving, nothing embodies the spirit of the holiday quite like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Debuting in 1924, the parade has become a staple of both Thanksgiving and Americana in general. However, a lot can change in 93 years, and as we’ve become more aware of the negative effect humans can have on the planet, it’s only natural to wonder about the environmental impact of the annual parade. Are these larger-than-life character balloons bad for the planet? (This year’s festivities feature 17 giant character balloons and 28 legacy balloons, balloonicles, balloonheads and trycaloons.) And what is Macy’s doing to mitigate the harmful effects their parade might have?

The Makeup of the Balloons

During the early years of the parade, the balloons were made of rubber, carefully cemented or heat-welded together, then filled with helium. Unfortunately, due to this makeup, the parade was forced to go on a hiatus from 1942 to 1944 during World War II. With the U.S. facing a major rubber and helium shortage, the Macy’s balloons were deflated and donated to the government to support the war effort.

These days, the balloons are made of flexible, durable, leak-resistant polyurethane fabric. Polyurethane fabric can be recycled into a number of different materials (such as rebonded flexible foam or compression-molded products), but I have yet to find any information on whether Macy’s recycles their parade balloons once they are retired. I’ve reached out to Macy’s for comment and will update this article if any new information comes to light.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade poster. Photo: Macy’s Inc.

A Question of Helium

We have a real problem regarding helium. If we continue to use helium at the projected rates of consumption, our current reserve will be completely depleted in 40 to 60 years. While the inability to inflate balloons with a lighter-than-air gas isn’t really that concerning, the loss of helium in the scientific and medical communities would be disastrous. Helium’s low boiling point, high thermal conductivity and noncombustible nature makes it indispensable for aerospace engineering, deep-sea diving and cryogenics.

Though there is an abundance of helium in the atmosphere, it is very difficult — and cost prohibitive — to purify. It’s only when it’s trapped underground that we can isolate it. Despite knowing that helium is a nonrenewable resource, a 1996 act of Congress caused the price of helium to drop dramatically, providing almost no impediment for overuse.

While the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade isn’t wasting helium on a gargantuan scale — their purchase only accounts for 10 percent of a single day’s profits the U.S. Treasury makes from the sale of helium — they are in a unique position to bring national attention to the issue. Since 2007, organizers of the parade have been recovering and recycling as much of the helium used to fill their balloons as possible. Unfortunately, the current method of recovery is only mildly effective, but at least they are making a concerted attempt. We can only hope the technology will improve with time.

Sustainability at Macy’s

Like the parade itself,  corporate, social and governmental sustainability initiatives have evolved over the years. Macy’s has emerged as a corporate leader in eco-friendly practices and has continued to set industry standards in terms of sustainability. Here are just a few of the ways they’ve stepped up their game:

  • They have installed more than 1.8 million LED lamps and fixtures in nearly all stores across the country. In 2016 alone, they saved an estimated 25.7 million kilowatt hours.
  • In 2016, solar energy was being generated on 93 active installations at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s facilities.
  • They reduce waste in the merchandise supply chain by standardizing the size of packing cartons, incorporating recycled polyester fibers in woven garment labels and minimizing packaging materials.
  • They’ve reduced their energy consumption by 28 percent over the past 10 years.
  • They have increased transportation via intermodal rail containers to 48 million miles, thereby reducing carbon emissions by 97 million pounds.
  • Their shopping bags are made of 100 percent recycled paper and are recyclable.
  • Ninety-nine percent of the paper they use in their marketing materials is recycled.
  • In 2016, about 23 percent of their billing statements were delivered to customers electronically.
  • They refuse to sell conflict diamonds (and other minerals and metals).
  • Their drive to increase sustainability is ongoing, they have solid goals lined out for the next two years.

Though the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade itself may not be the most sustainable of events, when you compare it to the company’s day-to-day sustainability practices, it’s not much more than a drop in the bucket. Their overall accomplishments definitely make up for the potential harm caused by the parade.

Harold the Baseball Player from Miracle on 34th Street is one of the new balloons joining the lineup this year. Photo: Macy’s Inc.

So, come Thanksgiving morning, turn on your TV and breathe easy knowing you’re supporting a company committed to sustainable practices. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has brought joy into the lives of countless people over the past 93 years, and there’s no shame in joining in the celebration. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Feature image: Macy’s Inc.

By Liz Greene

Liz Greene is an animal-loving, makeup-obsessing pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch her latest makeup misadventures on her blog, Three Broke Bunnies.