Pingxi Sky Lanterns’ Environmental Issues

                                                                Reporters/ Hsu-Ling Chang, Zhong-Lun Chen, Yaelle Moby

Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival was voted by the Discovery Channel as the second-largest New Year’s celebration in the world. It won the National Geographic Magazine editor’s recommendation“2016 Top Ten Winter Tourism First Choice”. In this festival, combining the New Year’s wishes and the Chinese Lantern Festival tradition, the sky lanterns carry the prayers of the people. When the lanterns are lit, hopes slowly rise, and the flames of prayers dance in the air. Sky lanterns are very inspiring, as they carry wings of hope and desire, transforming the night sky into an expanse of stunning beauty.

Traditional sky lanterns burning out, falling into the forest and basically becoming garbage. Photo image source/ Taiwan Scene

However, as time goes by, the cultural significance of sky lanterns has gradually been forgotten. At the same time, environmental awareness is rising, and the pollution caused by sky lanterns has triggered controversy, including fire hazards, carbon dioxide emissions, waste problems, and infringement on the ecological environment which in turn triggered a long-term battle between the local sky lantern stores in Pingxi and the environmental protection groups. They each put forward some solutions and are committed to improving environmental protection. But under the conflict of interest, they haven’t reached any consensus so far.

In response to the potential environmental damage caused by releasing sky lanterns, the New Taipei City Government and the sky lantern stores have launched many environmental protection measures, which include “recycling of sky lanterns”. The local government and sky lantern operators encourage local residents to pick up sky lantern trash and give them subsidies of NT $ 8 for each trash. “Sky lantern identity card” is used as it sticks the store information of the sky lantern on its bracket. If the sky lantern causes a fire accident, people can check the sky lantern identity card and ask for compensation. Although people want to balance the harm caused by tourism development and tradition of the sky lantern, but the favorable results are still very limited.

Eco-friendly sky lantern. Image Source / Bank of Culture

Culture Bank Develops New Eco-Friendly Sky Lantern

According to Hsu Chia-Lin, market development manager of Culture Bank, there are 300,000 to 400,000 sky lanterns flying into the sky every year. This calculation is based on the weight of each sky lantern, which is 150g. totalling at least 45 tons of sky lantern garbage falling out into the mountain forest every year. However, the highest recycling record is only 90%. In other words, at least as much as 4.5 tons of sky lantern garbage remains in the mountains where recycling companies cannot reach. Furthermore, if the wreckage of the falling sky lantern still contains flames, it is likely to cause a serious forest fire accident and endanger the residents who are living there.

Therefore, in order to balance environmental protection and traditional value, Culture Bank developed a new eco-friendly sky lantern called “sustainable sky lantern”. In order to design this kind of sky lantern, they modified some parts of the designs by changing the bracket with recycle paper pulp and redesigning the burning method of the sky lantern to make the bracket a fuel. When it rises to a certain height, the “all-paper-made sky lantern” can be completely burned without generating garbage.

Although the improved “all-paper-made sky lantern” will burn completely in the air, with no waste falling to the ground, the Culture Bank said that the sky lantern will still produce carbon dioxide. Each sky lantern burned will release about 1.28kg of carbon. The team hopes to reduce the ecological burden, so it comes up with the short-term plan of entrusting experts to estimate the carbon footprint of the sky lanterns. Then sites are selected to plant trees, with each sky lantern allocating a certain fee to the tree-planting fund so as to balance the carbon emissions.

Hsu Chia-Lin said that in addition to raising funds for mass production of environmentally friendly sky lanterns, the team also hopes to cooperate with local businesses and shops. That is why tourists can buy “sustainable sky lanterns” in Pingxi. Recently they also plan to cooperate with the government to promote environmental protection in the Sky Lantern Festival.

Wang Zhao-Jing is a lantern manufacturer. Photo / Hsu-Ling Chang

Help Save Local Sky Lantern Industry

” Sustainable sky lantern” through fund-raising should be of help to the local industries, do not harm the local industries!” In 2016, the Culture Bank advocated the need to pay attention to environmental damage caused by sky lanterns. Through online communication and media reports, the image of Pingxi Sky Lantern suffered a great blow. So far, Wang Zhao-Jing and local practitioners still felt frustrated. Wang said that outsiders criticized traditional sky lanterns as “not environmentally friendly” and then launched their own-patented products, which made them think that environmental groups harmed local industries in the name of environmental protection.

Wang Zhao-Jing, a seventy-one-year-old man who was born in Pingxi, decided to come back to his hometown after resigning from the trading company and was committed to community development and promotion sightseeing. He has also been making handmade sky lanterns for many years. He said that in earlier years, some inferior sky lanterns that were made in China were sold in the market, and these were not only unsafe in material but were also too small in size. Therefore, he made proposals to the government to regulate the size of the sky lanterns; suggesting that the diameter of all sky lanterns used for releasing must be greater than 60cm so that they can fly up high enough or else they may fall down and cause fire accidents.

“Now the materials for making sky lanterns have become more environmentally friendly,” Wang Zhao-Jing said. Local merchants decide to replace the tape with natural paste (adhesive paste) because they can reduce the weight of sky lanterns so that they can fly in the air more easily. In addition, since the round skeleton wire rings dropping to the mountain forest are more likely to hurt the animals as their wireframes could strangle wild animals and livestock. In order to prevent this from happening, the iron wire is changed into bamboo branches. Moreover, the single bamboo branch in the middle of the round skeleton is replaced by a cross-shaped bamboo frame, and a bamboo stick forming cross intersection can provide a more stable structure. In sum, environmentally friendly materials can make every part of the sky lantern biodegradable.

Many shops selling sky lanterns in Pingxi. Photo / Hsu-Ling Chang

Nowadays, local stores in Pingxi all use improved sky lanterns. After tourists fly the lanterns, they encourage local people or children to pick up and collect the recycled parts of the sky lanterns such as the lampstand and the base which can all be recycled and reused. In addition, they are cooperating with Huafan University to use aerial camera to find the places where the recycling sky lanterns land. Not only can this improve the efficiency of recycling the sky lanterns but can also reduce the accumulation of mountain forest garbage. Moreover, the most important thing is when flying sky lanterns, people have to make sure that the weather is not too dry. If there is no moisture in the air and there are many fallen leaves and branches on the ground, it will easily cause a fire.

Sky Lantern Stuck Between Green and Price

Pingxi was once a coal-mining center, but after the mines were closed, the sky lantern business gradually became a pillar of the local economy. Nevertheless, in recent years, whenever the Lantern Festival is coming, there will be both positive and negative views about the event. Some people think that flying sky lanterns is not environmentally friendly and will harm the environment. Others think that this is a traditional custom and should be preserved.

Wang Zhao-Jing said that since sky lantern is a cultural heritage and tradition, it is very important to preserve this heritage. It is the wish of many that this event can be passed down from generation to generation. Many merchants have their own concerns for sky lanterns. If they sell “sustainable sky lantern”, most of the manufacturers and the recycling workers will face unemployment problems. Furthermore, the price of eco-friendly sky lantern is around NT $350 to 400 each, which is much higher than that of the traditional sky lantern. The merchants are also concerned that high price strategies will deter customers from buying sky lanterns and affect Pingxi’s tourism industry.

On the contrary, the Culture Bank stated that Taiwan’s cultural tourism should take into account its environmental concerns. It is possible to allocate funds for environmental maintenance and provide a better-quality cultural service experience which is the best way to maintain sustainable development of the local industry.

People are flying sky lantern. Photo / Hsu-Ling Chang

Whether it be the local sky lantern stores in Pingxi or the environmental protection groups, whether it be the traditional recyclable sky lanterns or the “sustainable sky lanterns”, all of them are committed to maintaining Pingxi’s sky lantern tradition, as they make much effort to strike a balance between cultural heritage and environmental protection.