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Are Sky Lanterns Bad for the Environment? Things You Need to Know about Pingxi Sky Lanterns

Posted by:  Anusha Lee
Published date: December 12, 2021
Releasing sky lanterns in Pingxi is one of Taiwan's most famous tourist attractions. After several media reports, including CNN, this beautiful tradition has even become known worldwide. However, sky lanterns are not as pretty as seen after several hikes around Pingxi. So if you ask me, I will tell you don't do it. But I also think you have the right the make your own decisions. This post tells you those things you need to know before you give it a go.
Pingxi sky lantern issues
Sky lantern in the mountain

Table of Contents:

Regulations of Releasing Sky Lanterns in Taiwan

Sky lanterns are made of thin paper shells with bamboo frames and wires. Theoretically, the sky lanterns will fully burn off in the sky, and the bamboo frames will drop to the ground.
According to National Fire Agency, Ministry of the Interior, 10 cities and counties in Taiwan ban releasing sky lanterns. Those are Taipei City, Taoyuan City, Taichung City, Kaohsiung City, Hsinchu County, Miaoli County, Changhua County, Chiayi County, Chiayi City, and Pingtung County.
Other counties have their own Sky Lantern regulations, and people must apply for permits before releasing them. Any violation will get a fine up to NT$3,000 (US$108, 96 Euros) and lawsuits for causing fire hazards.
Although it's legal to release sky lanterns in Pingxi, New Taipei City, visitors and sky lantern vendors still must comply with the regulations.
Upon this post written, the New Taipei City government updated the latest Sky Lantern Regulation about the size of sky lanterns, when and where sky lanterns can be released, etc., on November 16, 2021.
  1. When:
    Visitors can only release sky lanterns between 6 am and 10 pm.
  2. Where:
    The section of Keelung River between Pingxi Shifen Tourist Center 平溪區十分遊客中心 and Shigong Bridge 師功橋. The width extends 200 meters from both sides of Keeling River and 106 County Highway. The total length of this area is 17.5 km.
  3. Specifications of sky lanterns:
    Base frame diameter: between 60 to 70 cm
    Height: between 130 to 140 cm
    The outer diameter of the paper shell: between 360 to 370 cm
    Weight: no more than 300 grams (0.66 pounds)
    Fuel: A mixture of Kerosene and soybean oil or an equivalent one
  4. Others:
    • Hanging fireworks or anything that will produce flames underneath sky lanterns is not allowed.
    • Each lantern should have a label with the vendor's name and business address.
    • Individuals or groups also have the liability if the lanterns they released cause casualties, public safety violations, property, and environmental damages, etc.
    • Children under 14 years old or people with disabilities should have their parents or legal guardians to keep them company when releasing sky lanterns.
    • For those groups that are going to release more than 100 sky lanterns, they must apply for permits with the required safety plans and other documents at least 5 days in advance.
  5. Fine:
    Any violation above will get a fine of NT$3,000 (US$108, 96 Euros).
  6. Sky Lantern Certificate Stickers:
    In the future, only those lanterns with certificate stickers are allowed to be released. Sky lantern vendors must submit NT$20 to NT$50 for each lantern to the sky lantern sustainable fund.
    Those vendors that don't have certificate stickers will get a NT$10,000 (US$361, 319 Euros) fine.
    (I will update this when the new regulation is finalized.)
Pingxi sky lantern issues
Image from New Taipei City Government
Pingxi sky lantern issues
Image from New Taipei City Government

The Economic and Environment Impacts of Sky Lanterns in Pingxi

The Economic Impacts of Sky Lanterns in Pingxi

The sky lantern business plays an important role in the local business. Before the Covid-19, it was estimated that at least 30,000 sky lanterns were released every month by tourists in 2015, which was at least 360,000 lanterns per year. Each sky lantern costs NT$150 (US$5.4, 4.8 Euros), and this can infuse at least US$1.8 million to this small hillside town with a population of fewer than 5,000 people.
Pingxi sky lantern issues
This lantern is easy to be collected.
US$1.8 million may not seem like big money, but for a small town, 27% of its population older than 65 years old, it is a big deal. The younger generations can't find jobs in their hometown, and they move to nearby Taipei to get a better life. As a result, the average age of the Pingxi population is the oldest in Taiwan.
Many elderlies also collect frames and paper shells of those fallen sky lanterns for extra pocket money. They can receive NT$8 for each frame and NT1 for each paper shell. For lantern vendors, used frames are welcome because they can reuse those to make new lanterns. This will be explained more later in How Do New Taipei City and Local Business Tackle the Impacts.

The Environment Impacts of Sky Lanterns in Pingxi

However, the sky lantern business is also a double-edged sword and has brought many issues to the local people and the environment. Taipei Times has a story about What happens when sky lanterns fall. Taiwan Trails and Tales also has a post about this issue. I also witness many sky lantern debris hanging on the trees, lying in the valleys and hills, the locations that are too difficult and dangerous for people to retrieve.
Pingxi sky lantern issues
Other than the debris, sky lanterns also cast fire hazards on residents. Houses or properties that were engulfed by fire caused by sky lanterns are not new.
According to the statistics from the fire department of Pingxi, there are on average one or two reports of fires caused by sky lanterns every month (media report in January 2015).
In 2018, Pingxi District Office and several sky lantern vendors set up a fund to help cover the property loss caused by the lanterns and cleanup. The fund asks the lanterns vendors to donate NT$2 for each lantern they sell.
However, giving money to the fund is not mandatory.
In July 2019, a house owner who lost his house due to the fallen sky lanterns requested compensation of NT$1.7 million (NT$61,347, 54,422 Euros). It was disclosed that the fund only got input around NT$560,000 (US$20,224, 17,846 Euros) during that time. When this house owner needed the compensation, there was not much left. The poor house owner ended up having no place to go for a very long time.
Pingxi sky lantern issues
Image from Canva
Many vendors don't believe sky lanterns cause fires. They say the lanterns will keep rising into the sky if the fuel is still burning. Sky lanterns only drop after the fire is burned out.
They also question the fire investigation reports issued by the government fire department. That's why most of the vendors are reluctant to donate the money to the fund, according to the media report.
Other than the fire hazards, the amount of trash is beyond words. After the Sky Lantern Festival in 2019, a group of volunteers collected 326.15kg of trash in two hours. The debris can also contaminate the soil and water and harm the wildlife.
Nobody knows how many sky lanterns are still lying somewhere in the remote mountains and rivers that are too difficult to reach.

How Do New Taipei City and Local Business Tackle the Impacts

To encourage recycling those sky lanterns frames and papers, the New Taipei City government has set up many incentive programs to encourage the locals and tourists to help collect those lanterns. This has become a small income source for the local elderly.
New Taipei City government says the results of recycling used sky lanterns is getting better and better each year.
Pingxi sky lantern issues
Data from New Taipei City Government
During Sky Lantern Festival, the New Taipei City Government also set up several Sky Lantern Shell Recycling Stops 天燈紙回收小站 to encourage tourists to help recycle the debris. Tourists will be rewarded discounts when they buy things in Pingxi.
According to Environmental Protection Department, New Taipei City Government, more than 1.56 million sky lantern shells have been collected through the help of tourists, local people, and business owners till the end of 2019.
The local sky lantern vendors claim that they have recycled 95% of lanterns, and the lanterns won't fly very far to pollute the nearby mountains.

Are Sustainable Sky Lanterns the Solution?

With more and more reports about the sky lanterns causing fires and scattering in the remote mountains and river, the sky lanterns start to bear a bad name. More and more people criticize the practice of sky lantern releasing. Some environmental groups propose that there should be a cap of sky lanterns that can be released.

A Sky Lantern That Never Drops?

A group of college students founded a media called Bank of Culture 文化銀行. One of their projects was to tackle this problem in 2017 and crowd-funded the Sustainable Sky Lanterns 永續天燈.
Unlike the traditional sky lanterns using bamboo and wires to make the base frames, the lanterns proposed and designed by Bank of Culture are made of paper. Bank of Culture claims that their lanterns will fully burn up in the air, solving the debris scattering once for all.
Pingxi sky lantern issues
According to Bank of Culture, Sustainable Sky Lanterns have several features:
  1. Sustainable Sky Lanterns can be burned up in the sky.
  2. There is no debris scattering in the mountains or rivers.
  3. They also use the paper pulp produced in Taiwan.
  4. The patented structure of sky lanterns is designed in Taiwan.
  5. They work with the residents to produce the lanterns to create job opportunities.
The cost to buy one Sustainable Sky Lantern is NT$350 (US$12.6, 11.2 Euros). Bank of Culture lists the vendors that carry their designs. But I'm not sure those vendors still have Sustainable Sky Lanterns now.
Here's a video about how Sustainable Sky Lantern is made and what it was like in the sky:

Resistance from the Local Vendors

After Sustainable Sky Lanterns' debut, it's not a surprise that the sky lantern vendors aren't very happy about that. Most of them don't believe sky lanterns would cause fires because the fuel would burn out before reaching the ground.
Therefore, many believe that those outsiders use the excuse of environmental protection to tarnish their business.
Moreover, many vendors already have their factories to make their own sky lanterns. If they buy the new lanterns from Bank of Culture, they claim many workers will lose their jobs, and they put their livelihood into other people's hands. They think the negative reports about the impacts of the sky lanterns are hurting people in Pingxi.
The reasons for resisting the new lanterns can go on and on. So, it's not a surprise that Sustainable Sky Lanterns are not common in Pingxi. Also, many tourists just want to buy cheap stuff.

Is It Possible to Have a Sky Lantern Business That Is Environment Friendly?

Let's say each sky lantern weighs 200 grams (0.2 kg), 360,000 lanterns are released in the sky, and the recycling rate is 95% each year. That means there is still 5% of sky lanterns that are nowhere to be found and become trash. This amount will increase each year.
Pingxi sky lantern issues
It's not easy to ban releasing sky lanterns or find the best solution once for all. But, as a consumer, we should also take up our fair share of responsibilities of the environmental impacts. We don't know whether our good wishes written on the sky lanterns will end up becoming anyone or any poor wildlife's nightmare. I'm sure we don't want to see that happen, either.
From the video of Sustainable Sky Lanterns, we still can see debris falling from the sky. It's also for sure that burning the fuel increases carbon emission and pollutes the air.
On January 1, 2020, a fire broke out at Krefeld Zoo in Germany and killed more than 50 animals, including precious primates. The police said the fire was caused by airborne lanterns, which are illegal in Germany.
I'd been to the Sky Lantern Festival in Pingxi more than 10 years ago. Seeing so many lanterns lightening up the dark sky was indeed extraordinary, but I was also horrified. I had an unreasonable fear that the burning fuel might drop on my head.
After I become an avid hiker, seeing those lantern debris hanging on the trees or unreachable hills in Pingxi breaks my heart.
Pingxi sky lantern issues
Image from Canva
I will suggest people not to buy and release sky lanterns when they visit Pingxi. Many other wonderful things can also enhance your experience in Pingxi.
If you still want to do this, please ask around before you purchase the lanterns.

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English Posts

What happens when sky lanterns fall?

Posts in Chinese Only

Love and Hate Relationship with Sky Lanterns 天燈點燃的愛恨情仇,平溪環保天燈推不動,在地與外來創新如何共存?
The Challenges of Sky Lantern Business 明與滅的抉擇 - 天燈產業的永續挑戰
The Conversations Between Tourism and Environment Protection 20年來頭一遭 永續天燈升空 觀光與環保的不斷對話
Sky Lantern Fund Dries Up Soon. The New Lanterns Are Still Uncertain. 一年四季撿燈人 永續基金兩年見底 新式天燈有待市場考驗
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