Rethinking The Celebration: The Not-So-Beautiful Aftermath of Sky Lanterns and Balloons

Sky lanterns are usually called Chinese lanterns/wish lanterns/flying lanterns, and these lanterns can be traced thousands of years back in both Chinese and Thai celebrations and festivals.

Lanterns that are flown into the air, usually in order to celebrate or remember something. Photo credit: Jordan Madrid / Unsplash

Even so, lanterns are also becoming a popular custom for many celebrations worldwide – weddings, birthdays, music concerts, national holidays, etc.

Lanterns are generally made from paper supported by a wire or bamboo frame with a holder at the bottom for the heat source.

Why Are Sky Lanterns and Balloons Dangerous?

To start with, the flight route and destination of both balloons and sky lanterns are not ours to decide, so they can end up literally anywhere – on lands, into the river, on the shore, or straight to the ocean. And that’s just the beginning of the problems.

What goes up must come down somewhere, in this case, the balloons that we release could land literally anywhere.
What goes up must come down somewhere, in this case, the balloons that we release could land literally anywhere. Source: Pinterest

“What goes up must come down.”

Potential Fire Hazard

Sky lanterns can fly up to 3,000 feet and lasts for around 6 to 20 minutes, or when the flame burns out. However, there is no guarantee that the fire will be completely out and cooled when the lanterns eventually land. Consequently, any contact with a flammable surface could start a fire.

Sky lanterns have caused serious fire incidents in the past. To name a few, the large blaze at Smethwick plastic recycling plant in 2013 was caused by a Chinese lantern that landed on the depot. The fire took 200 firefighters and 3 days to be taken out.

The large blaze at the Smethwick plastic recycling plant due to a Chinese lantern that landed in the vicinity. Source: BBC.com

In the same year, the release of a single sky lantern in Washington resulted in 500-acre wildlife, which took 100 firefighters to extinguish the flames.

In India, 15 people were severely injured when a sky lantern landed on a shop, cause the four neighboring houses to burst into flames. In South Caroline, a sky lantern landed on a dry bush and destroyed 800 acres of land.

To top it off, at the start of 2020, dozens of animals were killed at a zoo in the western German city of Krefeld due to a fire caused by Chinese sky lanterns that were set off for the New year’s Eve celebrations.

The primate enclosure was fully ablaze at the German zoo due to a fire caused by a sky lantern. Photo credit:  Photograph: Alexander Forstreuter/AP
The primate enclosure was fully ablaze at the German zoo due to a fire caused by a sky lantern. Photo credit: Alexander Forstreuter/AP

According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, almost 20 forest fires have been caused by burning sky lanterns since the beginning of 2010. In Hanoi alone, there have been 8 fires in workshops, electrical stations, and house that was caused by sky lanterns.

Dangerous for Wildlife and the Environment

When balloons and sky lanterns land on the ground (or even bodies of water), they pose a risk to livestock, wildlife, and domestic animals.

The first danger is regarding ingestion. There are many cases in which animals have mistaken lanterns parts for food and accidentally digested them.

Sea turtles have it hard. They suffer from our waste, from plastic straws, bags, and now balloons too. Source: USFWS Eastern Shore of VA and Fisherman Island NWR

The thing about sky lanterns is that they have a wire/bamboo frame, which takes ages to break down. If those wires get wrapped up in hay bales it would be like swallowing razor blades for the poor animals who ingested it, which can damage their throat, stomach, and intestines, leading to immense pain and eventual death.

The second concern is the danger of entanglement or entrapment. Besides the risk of digesting wireframes, there are also examples of farm animals getting caught in wireframes. The effects on wildlife might be less documented compared to farm animals, but they’re also at risk nonetheless.

An owl that was entangled in a lantern that has fallen into the ground. Source: RSPCA

The same goes for balloons. They can end up anywhere and might be mistaken for food by wildlife, especially birds, turtles, fish, and livestock. They also pose the danger of entanglement due to their ribbons and strings.

Images like this are difficult to look at but are an extremely important reminder of our damage to the environment. Photo credit: Pamela Denmon, USFWS

One tragic example is how a calf died after choking on a balloon that landed at Frimingham Farm at Detling. The owner, Paul Burden, discovered the calf’s body when he went to check on his animals. The blue balloon that killed the calf was one out of half a dozen balloons that landed on his farm.

A poor calf that was choked to death by a balloon.
Example of entanglement to birds. Source: Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program

To further illustrate the problem, more than a hundred balloons were collected at Edwin W. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, and that number is just a fraction of the discarded balloons waste that end up in the environment.

Ban on Sky Lanterns

Due to the risks they pose, some countries and regions have banned the use of sky lanterns. In Thailand for example, local authorities have restricted the sale of lanterns ahead of major festivals.

Moreover, three German states have banned the sale of lanterns following the death of a 10-year-old boy in a house fire caused by sky lanterns in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Many countries ban sky lanterns too, including Argentina, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, New Zealand, and Spain. Thirty US states ban sky lanterns as do some parts of Canada.

Alternatives for Sky Lanterns

Now that we’ve seen how devastating sky lanterns and balloons can be, what should we use instead to liven up the celebrations? Below are some alternatives that are more environmentally-friendly:

Bubbles can be fun too. Photo credit: Vita Marija Murenaite /Unsplash
  1. Bubbles: Bubbles are definitely cheaper than balloons and better for the environment. It doesn’t leave any detrimental trace but is equally fun and floaty too!
  2. Natural confetti: No, not the plastic one that you can buy from stores. Instead, make your own natural confetti from dry leaves, birdseed, or flower petals.
  3. Flying Wish Paper: This is how it works: you write your wish on this special paper, and then you light it on fire and watch it fly up and burn away immediately. Floatie? Yes. Fire hazard? No.
  4. Planting a tree: The basic, simple, and probably the best alternative to commemorating someone or something is by planting a tree on behalf of the person/thing.

Sky lanterns and balloons are only one aspect of the many many elements of celebrations and parties that we need to carefully consider so that the way we celebrate things does not have to cost the environment or wildlife.

Think about the waste, the electricity, the resources, and the aftermath of the celebrations that you are going to hold.

To help you even further, Waste4Change also provides Event Waste Management service to help manage your parties/celebrations’ waste responsibly. Let’s stay mindful and responsible during this festive season!

Read the Indonesian version here.

References

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ethicallivingblog/2009/jul/31/sky-lanterns

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/01/gorillas-orangutans-and-chimps-die-in-german-zoo-fire

https://www.hantsfire.gov.uk/keeping-safe/atleisure/flying-lanterns/

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-birmingham-23123549

https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/when-lantern-festival-2016-chinese-fire-hazards-endanger-wildlife-a6889301.html

https://www.kentonline.co.uk/maidstone/news/party-balloon-kills-calf-43271/

https://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2015/8/5/balloons-and-wildlife-please-dont-release-your-balloons

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