Crashing Dreams: The Problem with Sky Lanterns

Crashing Dreams: The Problem with Sky Lanterns
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

If you're going to go set fire to lanterns and litter the countryside, at least use a lantern that has a sustainable design.

Each year, in New Taipei’s Pingxi district, thousands of people celebrate the end of the new year festivities by writing their wishes, hopes, and dreams on little lanterns before sending them up into the heavens. The problem? Your new year dreams become an environmental nightmare when the half-burnt wreckage crashes back to earth.

Praised by the Discovery Channel, tourism blogs, and various branches of Taiwan government the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is an unsustainable event launching up to 600,000 pieces of garbage into the surrounding mountains. While beautiful in the moment, the resulting waste has angered locals.

The same people who chastise others for littering, failing to sort their garbage, or using disposable chopsticks have no problem launching up a mixture of metal, treated bamboo, and fuel as long as it finally comes to rest out of sight and mind. No reliable information seems to exist on actual impacts, it’s clear that the lanterns can entangle wildlife and they pose a fire risk when the paper does not fully burn.

The paper covering does not readily biodegrade and the metal wirings do not either. Many countries, including Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina, have either outright bans on sky lanterns or limit their sales. In Taiwan it’s restricted to certain areas, but perhaps even those special zones require re-thinking.

Why doesn’t the government ban or limit the practice further? You can probably think of a good reason why they would maintain an event that attracts global attention and thousands of tourists.

Is this the environmental crime of the century? No, of course not – there are much worse things, namely coal and Taiwan’s continued battle with air pollution. But we don’t need sky lanterns to live, and the event as we know it today, a massive lantern armada, began only in 1999. They used to use the lanterns for sending messages.The obvious answer is to stop sending out sky lanterns.

But such a world, without any environmental impact, would be painfully boring. Thankfully, a smart team from Bank of Culture came up with a design for a fully degradable and burnable lantern design. The video below shows off some drone footage of the lantern burning up.

You can’t buy these lanterns in stores yet but you can support their project on the flyingV crowdfunding platform.

So, let’s recap. Yes, sky lanterns are essentially littering, they post an environmental risk, some countries have banned them, and we should probably worry about other pressing issues, but if you really want to send off some lanterns, at least use a sustainable design.

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Editor: David Green