The popularity of sky lanterns has soared in recent years, both for cultural celebrations and to replace much more environmentally harmful firework displays.
Sky lanterns are also known as Chinese lanterns, paper lanterns, and Kǒngmíng lanterns. They’re small hot air balloons made of paper and launched into the sky at night to celebrate or commemorate events.
Despite being made with paper, sky lanterns are bad for the environment because they contribute to littering, are potential fire hazards, and can harm wildlife. Even using completely eco-friendly materials doesn’t stop Chinese lanterns from harming the environment.
Are sky lanterns safe for the environment?
What goes up must come down – while we release sky lanterns in the air, they don’t just break down in the atmosphere or sail out to space (not that we want them to). Eventually, all lanterns return to the ground. Even if we don’t see them land, it’s inevitable that they will litter our environment or the ocean.
With this in mind, we need to think about whether lanterns are safe for the environment. That means knowing what they’re made of, how they break down, and what hazards they pose to the environment and wildlife.
What are sky lanterns made of?
Most sky lanterns are made of paper on the outside, with a fire lit inside.
Traditionally in Asian countries, sky lanterns are made with oiled rice paper with a bamboo frame. The source of fire is typically a candle.
In Brazil and Mexico, sky lanterns are traditionally made of thin translucent paper known as silk paper, and glued together. Instead of a candle, a packet of paraffin or rosin wrapped in cloth and bound with wire is used.
However, other lanterns can be made from plastics or wireframing, especially to sell cheap lanterns to tourists or people who can’t take the time to make their own. These can pose more hazards to the environment.
Are sky lanterns biodegradable?
Sky lanterns are made from biodegradable materials like paper and bamboo, but some are made from plastic materials. How long they take to biodegrade also depends on the material and whether it was coated in paint or otherwise decorated.
The fire source is rarely biodegradable, with the cheapest candles made from paraffin wax.
Are sky lanterns recyclable?
It’s nearly impossible to recycle a sky lantern that you’ve launched because they fly up into the air and travels for some distance.
However, if you come across a sky lantern, it’s usually not recyclable anyway. The paper is usually treated or painted in such a way that harvesting the fibers would be difficult and not worth the energy and water consumption put into it.
You would also have to separate the parts of the lantern in order to recycle it properly, taking apart the panels and framing as well as the fire source.
Similarly, you can’t really reuse sky lanterns – after this article, you probably won’t want to!
Being able to reuse the sky lantern for its intended purpose would involve finding the lantern, hoping it was completely intact despite potential fire damage or the panels being snagged on the way down, and having a functional fuel source.
It is possible to reuse lanterns as decor, but unless you don’t use it as a lantern it probably isn’t the same lantern you launched.
What happens to paper lanterns in the rain?
Without treating the paper, paper lanterns will weaken, with the water making the paper soft and likely to tear. This will result in the lantern falling out of the sky, and if the rain hasn’t touched the fire within it could cause a wildfire.
What happens to sky lanterns after they burn out?
Once the fire extinguishes from within a lantern, the lantern falls back to the ground.
This could be gradual, by weakening the hot air within the lantern before the fire is completely extinguished, or very sudden.
Are lanterns a fire hazard?
Sky lanterns can start fires, which can endanger both wildlife and humans. Because most lanterns are made from paper and other flammable materials, it’s not always easy to find evidence of the lantern after a fire has started.
In Germany, 30 animals died in a local zoo in 2020 after lanterns were released to celebrate the new year. Witnesses reported that the paper lanterns were flying near the zoo before the fire started.
Wildfire Today has reported on a number of fires either thought to or proven to have been started by sky lanterns.
In 2018, a gasoline tank exploded in Korea after a sky lantern landed on grass nearby, setting the grass aflame. When the fire reached the ventilation system of the oil tank, the tank exploded. The tank had been holding 2.66 million liters of gasoline.
Are sky lanterns illegal?
Many US states and countries have banned sky lanterns due to the risk they pose in starting fires.
Some places, like the city of Sanya in China, have banned lanterns due to the hazard they pose to aircraft and airspace navigation.
In most parts of Germany, sky lanterns have been illegal since 2009, while in Austria it’s illegal to produce, sell, import, or distribute lanterns.
It’s illegal to launch lanterns in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Spain, and Vietnam. In Brazil, launching lanterns has been an environmental crime since 1998.
Washington state banned the use of sky lanterns in 2015 when they adopted the 2015 International Fire Code. Two years prior, Louisiana banned the distribution, sale, and use of lanterns.
Other US states where sky lanterns are banned include Alaska, California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia.
Why are lanterns bad for the environment?
While a popular tradition, sky lanterns are known to be harmful to the environment. From potentially causing fires, trapping wildlife, and littering, sky lanterns have a multitude of negative effects on the environment.
Sky lanterns also pose dangers for wildlife and the environment. Wildlife that tries to eat them could choke on the sharp parts of wireframing, which could also damage them internally. Lanterns on the ground could also trap or entangle wildlife, which causes stress and injury, and could lead to wildlife starving to death.
It’s not just wildlife on land that suffers from sky lanterns. Marine life could also try to eat sky lanterns, mistaking them for jellyfish or vegetation. Lanterns made from plastics could trap aquatic wildlife too!
Birds could even become entangled or trapped while sky lanterns are in the air.
Do Chinese lanterns cause pollution?
It’s currently not known whether Chinese lanterns can contribute to pollution, though it’s important to remember that paraffin wax can pollute the air. Paraffin wax is known to contain up to 11 carcinogenic compounds and releases more harmful chemicals.
Are sky lanterns littering?
By definition, littering is leaving a large number of objects lying around, which is exactly what mass releasing of sky lanterns promotes.
Sky lanterns are launched into the air and watched as they float off elsewhere, but hardly anybody searches for where they’ve fallen. This means the majority of lanterns are left on the ground as litter until someone else comes along to clean them up.
Are there any environmentally friendly sky lanterns?
While you can source eco-friendly lanterns made with flame-retardant paper and bamboo frames, that won’t eliminate all the other risks posed by sky lanterns.
In general, all “releasable”, including balloons, are bad for the environment.
Think about what you want to use sky lanterns for – if you’re looking to commemorate an event, celebrate an occasion, or remember a loved one.
What can I do instead of releasing lanterns?
There are many alternatives to releasing sky lanterns depending on what you want to use the lantern for. Many release sky lanterns to mark an occasion or symbolize a person’s soul.
You can do all kinds of alternative, eco-friendly activities to have an even bigger impact than sky lanterns.
Though lighting a candle in your own home might seem to be less impactful, having a light in a specific place can be a really powerful token of remembrance. Looking at that light will remind you of why you lit it, and you only have to turn it on or light it when you’re thinking about your loved one.
Luminarias, and paper lanterns, are good alternatives to sky lanterns. Instead of launching the lantern into the sky, you place a luminaria on the ground. Luminarias are used primarily in New Mexico.
Similar to luminarias are other means of lighting lanterns to place on your property. You could create your own paper lantern and place it on a windowsill or elsewhere in your home to commemorate an event or remember a loved one.
Another alternative is to reuse fairy lights and get as much use out of them as possible outside the winter season.
If you want to celebrate by filling the air with something, you could try blowing bubbles. Colorful bubbles are temporary and have a very small impact on the environment, but you can also search for eco-friendly bubbles.
For remembrance, planting a tree could be a great alternative. As the tree grows, it will provide a home for wildlife, and the long-lasting effect means that your loved one can be remembered for generations to come.