Thanksgiving is a day full of family and national traditions. The turkey goes into the oven, family and friends gather and the football lineup is noted. And on televisions across the country, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade streams on the TV. An event that large takes copious planning and coordination, but while it brings an uplifting spirit to the holiday, does it do the same for the planet?

A cluster of balloons all in different colors

Helium Balloons

The massive balloons that adorn the parade are a major undertaking. They require nearly 100 handlers each to keep them under control, and they’re not part of the parade during windy days. While they need to be controlled, the balloons are kept afloat by a massive amount of helium. Helium is a completely non-renewable resource, so the natural supply is always on decline. In fact, some estimates say we’ll run out in the next 50 years. During a helium shortage, the parade was put on hold during World War II, missing 1942 to 1944. 

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Recognizing helium is a limited resource, special consideration is given to the gas at the end of each parade. Yet, it’s questionable whether the organizer’s efforts to recapture and recycle the helium after the event is effective. Having said that, even at an extraordinary price tag, the amount of helium used equates to a small percentage of usage for a single day in the country. 

As for the material of the balloons themselves, they’ve received an environmental upgrade from the original rubber to a polyurethane fabric that can be upcycled in a variety of ways. However, it’s unclear if this actually happens when a balloon is retired. 

Of course, durability is an important factor too. As there are one or two new character balloons added each year, some of them have been in service for decades with no aspirations for retirement. 

Environmental awareness has increased over the years and is witnessed in changes throughout the history of the event. For example, balloons used to be released into the air at the end of the parade — a practice that was squashed in the 1930s with consideration for the environment, pilots and the public. 

The balloons weren’t always part of the parade. In fact, early on, live animals were borrowed from the local zoo to participate in the festivities. Lions, tigers, bears… Oh my! Really though, speaking strictly from an environmental standpoint, live animals were less impactful than balloons. Yet, they were uninvited from the party after a few years, likely due to safety concerns. Scared children, clean up and inconvenience to others in the parade were other likely contributors in the decision.  

Transportation

There’s an unavoidable consequence of gathering large groups of people together. After all, just transporting three million people into the area will leave a carbon footprint. Then there’s the trucks required to haul the floats. Fortunately, the warehouse where the floats are built is a short distance from the parade route, so transport emissions remain low there.

Not only that, but the location Moonachie, New Jersey was specifically chosen in 2011 and has housed the floats and supplies for the past ten years in the state-of-the-art and LEED-certified facility. Interestingly, this location adds a restriction to the float design. As part of the route into New York City, the floats must be transported through the Lincoln Tunnel. Inasmuch, floats must be no larger than 8.5 feet wide. However, many floats are designed to collapse in order to fit the restriction. 

To counterbalance the big trucks in the parade, there are plenty who travel pedestrian style, leaving zero-impact in their wake. For example, there are only twelve bands chosen for the honor each year, all of which walk the entire route.  

The Macy's sign on a white building

Macy’s sustainability practices

It’s no surprise the organization continues to evolve the parade in alignment with the needs of the planet. Reducing waste and being energy-efficient is engrained in the company mission. The transition has been gradual, but the updates are continual. For example, the company relies on solar energy for many stores and has upgraded to energy-efficient LED lighting throughout most locations. 

In the store and through the mail, Macy’s also pays attention to waste, using 100% recycled paper for their shopping bags and minimizing packing materials in the standardized packing cartons that improve transport efficiency, using less trucks and ensuring trucks are full before heading out. Marketing materials are also nearly 100% recycled, and the company is moving to e-bills to cut back paper consumption. 

To put it simply

While the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is unquestionably integrated into the very fabric of the holiday, no event that large can be completely sustainable. 

Overall, considering the number of people involved, the overall impact is miniscule. If you add in the efforts at a corporate level to streamline everyday operations, Macy’s is a company to put on the yes list for eco-conscious shopping. Knowing the effort it puts into maintaining low transport emissions, energy reduction and plastic-free packaging, Macy’s is clearly balancing business with the needs of the environment. 

Via Better Homes & Gardens and Earth 911

Images via Unsplash