Do you know what the biggest threat to wildlife is? It’s you—yes, you, the potential danger to wildlife.
Okay, so that might be a little harsh, but you looked, didn’t you? And the truth is harsh, sometimes. But it’s a thing we have to deal with now—we’re aware, now more than ever, of the impact we have on our environment. We must act accordingly.
Aside from the waste we accumulate over the course of our daily lives, there’s the matter of sky lanterns. As early as 2007, they’ve been featured in social occasions of every shape and form, the demand for them soaring in 2010 after the release of Disney’s movie “Tangled.” They’re incredibly beautiful—but can very quickly become a nuisance; in fact, it’s almost a guarantee the next day.
Featured in weddings and beach parties (which, in the Philippines, are pretty much year-round), these lanterns are generally made of paper, wire or bamboo, and a candle. The paper makes up the body, supported by the bamboo or wire frame that also cradles the candle. It functions pretty much on the same principles as a hot air balloon, sans the element of control post-takeoff—and that’s just one reason we don’t recommend them.
As of 2009, countries like Brazil, Austria, Thailand, Chile, and Germany have banned the sale of sky lanterns altogether, acknowledging and prioritizing the long-term dangers over the aesthetic appeal which, objectively, don’t even last very long. With that in mind, the lanterns don’t seem entirely appropriate for weddings.
The thing is, we never really know where they’re going to land. The level of danger associated can vary depending on where you set them free, but it is always present. Farm animals in the United Kingdom have died of internal bleeding from the shards of old lantern frames lodging themselves in hay bales, and those that drift along–regardless of the length of time they either stay afloat or at what point they eventually come down–often get birds and smaller woodland animals tangled up in them. In 2011, they also reported a devastating loss in cattle and horses across certain farms, in addition to damaged property and machinery. For these reasons, among several others, sky lanterns actually violate international fire codes. As if the regular cleanup wasn’t difficult enough!
In addition, stray lanterns have been known to start wildfires and house fires. The amount of damage really just depends on when and where they land. This is affected by the same air currents that carry them away; as the wind changes, hot air gets pushed out of the lanterns, causing them to descend almost at random. By 2013, two states, Utah and North Carolina, suffered a mountain fire and cellular network tower damage respectively, and a town in the United Kingdom lost just over US$ 9 million in collateral and saw 13 firefighters injured. In 2016, trees and high rise buildings were ablaze post-Chinese New Year in cities of central and western China, and provinces like Jiangsu were littered with the used frames.
Admittedly, this is kind of an old topic, though strangely not one that’s worn out. It’s been around long enough for us to have already heard of companies developing biodegradable sky lanterns as an answer to the environmental threat they pose. But even the official websites of said companies—which will not be named, but you could probably do some Googling for yourself—display only vague, just-reassuring-enough statements that wave away the casually concerned, but don’t actually amount to much without certification. And as consumers, that’s something we should take note of. Even the units with bamboo frames, which are meant to be more environment-friendly, take decades to biodegrade. Long story short (too late?), both you and the planet are better off not using these things.
But we can still celebrate the great moments in life and throw the odd beach party while being more mindful of our impact on the environment. If the ambiance is what you’re after, you can always rely on the timeless classics: candles and fairy lights. If you’re looking more into the ceremonial aspect of it, you can plant a tree or two. That might take some more work logistically, but there’s no reason you can’t combine a great time with doing good.
It comes down to a matter of mindfulness on our part; the human burden of conscience, after all, dictates that not only must we know better, but we must also strive to do better.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s November 2017 issue.