We are raising a generation of children whose primary interaction is technology and technological devices like tablets, computers, smartphones and smart TVs. Before all these technologies took over, and maybe with some older generations, kids used to play using other devices like toys, like toy guns or silly string.
Silly string is a toy of a flexible and brightly colored plastic string propelled as a liquid from an aerosol can. It is a very fun way to play and a simple press of the nozzle on the top of the aerosol can result in a long string of foamy plastic shooting across the room. The environmentally cautious question then becomes, are silly strings biodegradable and do they have adverse effects? This article will answer these questions.
Does Silly String Biodegrade?
Unfortunately, the silly string is not biodegradable. The incredible source of fun and popular product during birthday parties and popular holidays is not biodegradable. The exact formula for the chemical mixture inside a can of Silly String is a closely-held secret.
However, scientists who have studied the original 1972 patent have a fairly good idea of the types of chemicals involved and what they do. There are three main ingredients involved: first, there is a resin that forms the sticky plastic coating of the strings.
Secondly, you have a surfactant that makes the resin foam and become sticky and finally, you have the propellant that forces the chemicals out of the can, helping them to foam and mix as it evaporates. The propellant accounts for about 75% of the liquid inside a can of Silly String.
The original propellant in Silly String was hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). These products are destructive to the ozone layer and the environment in general, not only explaining why they make the product non-biodegradable but also why they have been banned since the 1970s.
Despite this, authorities have also found evidence of banned ingredients in Silly String from other countries, making them all the more dangerous to the environment. They are also made of liquid solvent, or polymer resin, which is your standard cocktail of chemicals where a good handful of those ingredients are classified as carcinogens.
These products are additionally harmful to the environment and do not decompose or biodegrade. This makes them incredibly fun product non-biodegradable and if not removed, it can clog storm drains and sewer systems.
Silly string, however, has several redeeming qualities.
First, as previously mentioned, it is a fun way for you and your family, including kids, to spend some time outside. You can pull pranks on your kids or partner and will make your weekend fun. Well, some take the fun outside the home and make pranks on their teachers, public work crews, guests at parties, and people on parades.
Secondly, silly string is used in modern warfare to identify, but not explode, tripwires.
In Iraq, for example, soldiers use Silly String before entering a building that they suspect could contain a bomb. Soldiers shoot Silly String across a room before entering. If it all falls to the ground, they know it’s safe to enter.
If it hangs in the air, however, they know it’s caught on a tripwire and they can avoid triggering explosives. For that ingenious and life-saving purpose, who can complain, even in the name of the environment?
Is Silly String Toxic?
Silly string is relatively non-toxic. However, it can leave lasting damage to vinyl surfaces such as vinyl roofs on automobiles. It can also damage the clear coat on a car, which is the protective covering over the paint.
Although the final product is relatively not toxic, the chemicals used to make it could be. The synthetic chemicals used are not safe for the environment, even if they have been made into fun toy. Even if we are already exposed to such chemicals even if from other sources, it does not mean that any chemical can and should be used in any product.
Unfortunately, the exact chemicals used in silly string cans are not known because the maker is allowed to claim such information proprietary. It could also mean they have substituted some of these chemicals over time, either based on how much they want to make financially, or based on the scrutiny and complaints forged against them.
We cannot exactly know how toxic the chemicals used to make the polymer are, because no one requires such testing for residuals. However, since the product has been allowed into circulation for years, it is fair to say they must not be toxic, or at least the end product is fairly non-toxic.
Regardless, it would only be fair to stay away from them.
First, the chemicals with such clear toxicity should not be used in children’s toys.
Secondly, workers should not have to risk being exposed to such chemicals to make toys.
Thirdly, Society should not have to risk having such chemicals released into the environment as a consequence of making toys, whether during the chemicals’ or product’s manufacture or transport or after disposal of the product itself.
Finally, there has to be a reason why most cities and states have banned the use of silly string. It mainly is because of the clean-up and removal costs, fears of potential damage to house or vehicle paint, or the effects they may have on the environment in general.
Is Silly String Flammable?
Well, silly string is flammable, although some argue the contrary. According to Asking Facts and Classic Rock 105.1, the ‘About’ section of the Silly String website states:
“SILLY STRING Brand Spray Streamer, the original fun in a can, is non-toxic, non-flammable, 100% safe for children and the environment and made in the USA. It’s perfect for parties, pranks, play and all-around fun. Nothing makes people of all ages giggle, laugh, run and squeal like a can or two of SILLY STRING Brand Spray Streamer.”
As of June 2021, the Silly String website is unavailable for the confirmation of this quote but it might be down because of the concerns filed against it. Regardless, the string may not be flammable, but the chemicals that shoot it out of the can sure are!
There are two main concerns with the propellant that comes out of the silly string can, one being that it can become so cold when leaving the container that it can freeze a person’s skin.
The second concern is that some propellants are flammable, and can cause serious damage. The website can claim that Silly String is non-flammable and 100% safe for children, but nothing is said about spraying them into the fire. The string may not be flammable, but the chemicals that shoot it out of the can sure are!
To completely understand how they can become flammable, it is important to understand the science behind them first. Silly string is held by an aerosol can or spray, and these cans use a type of propellant to force materials out.
The propellant itself may be flammable, as it can be composed of liquefied gas or another mixture. Secondly, look at the actual silly string; it consists of a formula “polyisobutyl methacrylate”, which forms the basis for the string.
It is then mixed with another ingredient that turns the otherwise liquid into foam, “sorbitan trioleate”. It is therefore easy to conclude that the chemicals inside the string and the aerosol components, when coming into contact with fire, can be very dangerous.
Still don’t believe this? Here we go! According to the Daily Mail, a little girl’s 11th birthday celebration party went up in flames, literally, after a stunt next to the cake went horribly wrong in September a few years back.
The fire was caused by remnants of Silly String that came into contact with the cake and acted as a fuse as the girl blew out her candles. The party was believed to have taken place in Argentina. The girl was surrounded by her loved ones, celebrating her birthday and after a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ in Spanish, the girl was covered in a silly string by family members.
Unfortunately, the string bursts into flames and engulfed her after coming into contact with the candles on the cake. Although most of the silly string stuck to the girl as planned, remnants of it came into contact with the cake and acted as a fuse. It is not clear whether or not the girl suffered injuries. The horrifying video of the incident can be found here.
Is Silly String Toxic To Dogs?
The short answer is yes. According to Dr. Kara, a dog veterinary for over 20 years, although the ingredients are a trade secret, we do know that the product contains isopropyl alcohol and tetrafluoromethane both of which are gastrointestinal and mucous membrane irritants. This explains why dogs would vomit and have bloody diarrheas if they ingest silly string.
Those that might have ulcers on their oesophageal and stomach linings, would have a hard time eating the silly string and would experience pain and a subsequent lack of appetite. If a dog ate silly string, it would end up in their gastrointestinal blockage as well and would require the services of a veterinarian.
When ingested, the silly string might cause ulceration, even in humans, although the effect should be temporary and should heal soon. However, if they happen to eat too much silly string, the results could be life-threatening and should seek advanced care immediately. Simply put, watch your dog around the silly string and do not let them consume it.
Various Alternatives to Silly String
1. Biodegradable confetti
It is better to opt for biodegradable confetti poppers and will give you the same effect as silly string. Additionally, you will not be damaging the environment and will stay away from the potential threats posed by silly string. The confetti is also a lot easier to clean up since it can be vacuumed, are a lot more affordable and can be made from home using old papers.
2. Paper decorations
You can also go for an all-paper party decoration, achieving the same results as if you had used silly string. They are cheaper, easy to clean after, can be made at home and are more environmentally friendly. You can also reuse them for future parties by merely changing their designs and colors.
You can also use bubbles with your kids as an alternative toy. They will provide the children with the same amount of fun, and they are also much safer for them and the environment. For added fun, you can get them automatic bubble machines. They can simply click it, and many bubbles will automatically fly out.
This is especially important now after the lockdowns imposed after the COVID pandemic hit in 2020. Many people around the world were stuck at home and schools closed and now that vaccines have led the world to be reopened, just travel with your family.
The pandemic proved that we can lose everything we have, do not let another one teach you the same lesson. Travel to new countries, new areas and have fun while doing it. However, do not forget to stay safe; not every place is back to normal and might not be for a few more months or years.