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The Environmental Impact of Some Indianapolis 500 Traditions

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The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and more specifically, the Indianapolis 500, thrive on tradition. It’s marketed. It’s revered. It’s set in stone. 

Or is it? Many traditions have come and gone over the years: 

  • The number of cars in the race
  • The starting time of the race
  • The day of the week of the race
  • The number of races
  • The direction cars race
  • The racing series allowed to race
  • Pre-race ceremonies
  • Post-race ceremonies

Fans love traditions. But as times change, fans begin to question some of them because of the harm they can do. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar have already indicated they are willing to throw traditions by the wayside when it suits them. The question remains as to whether they will concede to public opinion and data to cease traditions that have a harmful impact on the environment.

Balloon release

Since 1947, IMS has released thousands of balloons as part of its opening ceremony. However, it is now common knowledge that balloons are harmful for the environment and potentially dangerous for wildlife.

What goes up must come down. Balloons end up in bodies of water, in the soil and elsewhere, causing harm to animals and polluting the waterways. Even before they land, they can cause trouble, like the 1986 release of 1.5 million balloons for Cleveland’s Balloonfest, when a rainstorm blew them to an airport, which had to shut down, spooked horses and impeded a Coast Guard rescue on Lake Erie.

Although the Balloon Council used to fight bans on balloon releases, as they did in 2017, recently, TBC has revised its stance. In a statement, TBC Chairman Dan Flynn said, “In the past TBC didn't advocate for or against balloon releases, we advised people on the best practices to minimize environmental impact such as only using latex and not adding strings. Over the years, as the social and political climates have changed, our position has also evolved. This change in stance fully recognizes the need for everyone to be as 'green' as we possibly can be to protect our planet." 

They now believe that balloons should not be released. “We stand with communities by encouraging that balloons be weighted, not released outdoors, and disposed of properly when broken or deflated. Whether it's a single balloon or hundreds, let's keep them from flying away,” Flynn states. 

Many organizations have put an end to balloon releases, leaving IMS as one of the few still staging a large balloon release, according to Balloons Blow, an anti-balloon litter site. The Florida-based organization is trying to convince the track to join the others in ending this practice. This spring they brought their message to a billboard near the track: “BALLOONS POLLUTE AND KILL. #StopLitteringIMS." 

Although the billboard was taken down, the activists are not giving up. Co-founder Danielle Vosburgh told reporters that the social media campaign will continue, calling balloons “litter” and emphasizing the importance of disposing of garbage properly. "You wouldn’t throw balloons on the ground so why would you let them into the air where they’re going to land somewhere else?"

IMS officials claim that the latex balloons released are biodegradable. However, over the past year, an environmental data reporter at the IndyStar tested that theory. Emily Hopkins has kept balloons in several environments that they might fall into after release: fresh water, salt water, soil and compost. None have degraded and, she says, some are still inflatable.

Nevertheless, Doug Boles, president of IMS, says the balloons will continue to be released. "It’s a tradition that’s been here for a while and that’s a plan at the moment."

Drinking the milk

Another harmful tradition is the drinking of milk by the winner. It stems from the1936 victory by Louis Meyer, whose personal habit of drinking buttermilk on a hot day was picked up as a marketing ploy by the dairy industry after he drank it in Victory Circle. A tradition was born that has remained unbroken until Emerson Fittipaldi drank orange juice in 1993.

Dairy and meat consumption have the single largest impact on our environment, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet. Livestockis responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

New analysis indicates that meat and dairy use 83% of all farmland and produce 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. The world’s270 million dairy cows and their manure produce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. A cow, on average, releases between 70 and 120 kg of Methane per year. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has 23 times the negative effect on the climate that carbon dioxide does. Two-thirds of all ammonia comes from cows.

A study published in the journal Science, based on 40,000 farms in 119 countries and representing 90 percent of all food products consumed, assessed the impact of foods on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification). It found that meat and dairy products cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable crops and that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. 

Dairy production’s impact is felt in many ways, putting pressure on natural resources, including freshwater and soil. The World Wildlife Federation lists some:

  • Water. Dairies require large volumes of water to grow feed, water cows, manage manure and process products. Manure and fertilizer runoff can pollute local water resources. Increased nutrients in the water contribute to the growth of algae, reducing oxygen for aquatic plant and animal life. 
  • Air. Airborne emissions of ammonia can negatively affect air quality and damage habitat, leading to the loss of species.
  • Soil. Livestock farming contributes to soil erosion by turning woodlands into pasture or crop fields, through overgrazing and because of cattle hooves damaging the land.
  • Habitat. More than two-thirds of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock. One-third of the land suffers from desertification due to deforestation, overgrazing and poor agricultural practices. Unsustainable dairy farming and feed production can lead to the loss of ecologically important areas, such as prairies, wetlands and forests.
  • Land use. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.
  • Animal health and welfare. Cows only produce milk to nourish their young. In order to provide milk for humans, factory farm owners must repeatedly impregnate them through artificial insemination. Calves are removed from their mothers almost immediately after birth, causing distress for the mothers and typically resulting in death for the male calves, who are shipped off for slaughter for the veal trade after being kept in cramped pens that prevent them from moving in order to produce tender flesh. To ensure the meat is white, they are fed a diet low in iron and nutrition, rendering them ill from anemia, diarrhea, pneumonia and other illnesses.

Dairy cows are hooked up to milking machines twice a day. Artificial insemination, milking regimens, and drugs are used to force them to produce ever more milk. The average cow today produces more than four times as much milk as cows did in 1950.

Often dosed with recombinant bovine growth hormone, they often develop mastitis. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 16.5 percent of cows used for their milk suffer from mastitis, which is one of the leading causes of death in adult cows in the dairy industry. Stress and ill health lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, according to the WWF.

According to PETA, a cow’s natural lifespan is about 20 years, but cows used by the dairy industry are typically killed after about five years because their bodies wear out from constantly being pregnant or lactating. 

Furthermore, a dairy-industry study found that by the time they are killed, nearly 50 percent of cows are lame because of standing on concrete flooring and filth in intensive confinement. Cows’ bodies are often turned into soup, food for dogs and cats, or ground beef because they are too “spent” to be used for anything else.

Just as the Indianapolis 500 and IMS have adopted technology to improve safety and viewing of the race, they need to abandon some practices for the safety of everyone on the planet. It’s time to move forward and adjust. After all, that’s tradition.