Is Taiwan's Famed Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival an Environmental Plague?
Jun 15, 2018

This article is a reader’s contribution to Crossing. It explores the environmental pollution caused by the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, one of Taiwan’s most famous tourist attractions. What can be done to create a win-win situation for the environment and the tourism industry?

Sky Lanterns Have Put Taiwan on the Global Tourism Map

The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival counts among a handful of events that have truly become world famous festivities, making Taiwan an international travel destination. The scene of these floating lanterns filling the sky might be the first impression many foreigners have of Taiwan.

There is a reason for this. Taiwan has long used sky lanterns, released into the sky to wish for good luck and blessings, in international image campaigns such as for the Taiwan Pavilion at Expo 2010, in the 2011 movie You're the Apple of My Eye, or the Tourism Bureau's promotional video Meet Colors of 2016. The faint glow, hopefulness, unity and grandeur featured in these images have become a strong advertisement for our country.

As a stark cultural image, sky lanterns represent the collective memory and generational scars on Taiwanese soil. On the other hand, Pingxi District has dedicated great efforts to Taiwanese tourism in a more substantive manner. During the period from 2010 to 2016, for instance, Pingxi District saw a total of 6,41 million visitors. In 2016, it was picked as the third most popular sightseeing spot in Taiwan by international travelers, beating the Taipei 101 skyscraper.

Moreover, the Sky Lantern Festival, which takes place once a year, has not only been voted as the world’s second-biggest New Year’s Eve celebration by the Discovery Channel, the American cable TV network CNN has included it on its list of 52 Things to do Around the World, while National Geographic Magazine and the travel guide publisher Fodor’s have both listed the festival as a must-see event.

Sky Lanterns, while no doubt beautiful, have triggered controversy over the environmental hazard they pose.

Looking back, many Taiwanese people haves experienced releasing sky lanterns to some extent. I sent my first sky lantern into the air when I was in fifth grade. Back then, my parents and I, each of us holding a brush, very cautiously wrote our deepest wishes on the thin, translucent rice paper. After finishing, we stood on both sides of the railway track, and once we let go, the sky lantern, containing a gently flickering flame, slowly rose up into the sky. At this moment, my face glowing as red as the lantern, we prayed for all our wishes to be fulfilled once they were high enough to be heard in heaven.

However, in the past few years, these sky lantern memories have begun to make me feel guilty since the environmental controversy regarding sky lanterns came to light. Many groups have come forward, charging that the lanterns, after falling from the sky, are generating an endless amount of waste for mountain towns, and that residual dyes and heavy metals could endanger the lives of animals in the mountains. Each year, when the Lantern Festival draws to a close, the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival triggers an avalanche of criticism and dismay, and never-ending calls for a ban on the release of sky lanterns or even the abolishment of the festival itself.

Each time I see the deluge of comments left by readers under news articles, such as: “Why don’t we abolish such a bad custom?” or “I hope that the government prohibits their release sooner rather than later!” I can’t help but feel extremely sad. The sadness comes from the fact that I understand that all these people deeply love this piece of land and that their motivation is to make Taiwan a better country. Sky lanterns do have some bad effects. However, can it be that one side must be sacrificed if culture and progressive values clash with each other?

Sky Lantern Culture and Environmental Protection Should not be a Zero-Sum Game

I believe that in this day and age we don’t have to accept a “choose one or the other” zero sum game scenario when we face new challenges and value conflicts. More and more examples show that we can find compromises when facing these problems, as long as we are willing to use creative thinking in combination with modern technology – this is probably not a perfect or sufficiently thorough approach, but it is more hopeful than just maintaining the status quo forever.

Take for example the thorny issue of the “million square meter garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean” – How can several hundred thousand tons to several million tons of plastic waste and other garbage floating in the oceans be cleaned up? When everyone said this was impossible, a 19-year-old Dutch man, Boyan Slat, decided in 2013 to courageously tackle the challenge, proposing the concept of an “ocean vacuum cleaner” which was projected to clean up the great Pacific garbage patch in five years.

Another problem that has received widespread attention over the past decade is the “surplus food problem,” which German youngsters sought to solve with the help of the convenience of the Internet. In 2012 they founded the platform, setting up a food saving map and food sharing model that have meanwhile been expanded to Switzerland and Austria. By 2016, the site had reportedly gotten 2,500 supermarkets and restaurants onboard to provide surplus food, as well as 15,000 registered users. Altogether, 4,000 tons of food have been saved from being thrown away, an astonishing result.

Getting back to Taiwan, we are facing environmental challenges regarding the sky lantern culture. Fortunately, we also have a bunch of young people who are willing to work to solve the problem. From 2016, a group of students at National Chiao Tung University formed a team to try to develop biodegradable, environmentally friendly sky lanterns to upgrade this Taiwanese cultural tradition and make it sustainable.

Expert Team Develops Zero Carbon Sky Lantern

Simply speaking, the environmentally friendly sky lantern developed by that team burns up completely in the air without leaving any waste. This means it will not become an environmental burden for the mountain towns, and flora and fauna in the mountains won’t be threatened by pollution as a result.

While the waste problem is solved, what about the carbon emissions caused by the burning of the sky lanterns?

Data show that one tree can absorb the CO2 emissions of about 8.6 sky lanterns in a year. Should mass production of the environmental sky lanterns go according to plan, a certain ratio of income per every sky lantern sold will be paid into a tree planting fund. The team plans to cooperate with the Wutong Foundation, entrusting experts with the selection of tree planting sites and looking after the newly planted saplings for over three years. It is hoped that the carbon emissions caused by the burning of sky lanterns can be balanced and absorbed as much as possible.

In the long term, they expect to collaborate with environmental technology engineering to conduct a complete carbon footprint calculation and assessment to truly understand the environmental impact of sky lanterns. Furthermore, they will invite expert consultants and a certification body to develop a carbon footprint management plan to achieve carbon neutrality under the international specification PAS 2060. Finally, they will allocate a certain amount of funds to buy enough carbon units to reach carbon neutrality by offsetting all of the greenhouse gas emissions caused during the entire sky lantern lifecycle, from procurement of raw materials to its release into the sky. They hope to keep promoting sky lantern culture and environmental sustainability from a professional, scientific perspective.

Environmental Sky Lanterns not Mere Fundraising Tool but Opportunity to Take Taiwanese Culture to a Higher Level

The late film director Chi Po-lin once said: “Why do so many people love sky lanterns? Seeing a wish lantern brings hope to people’s hearts. Sky lanterns are very comforting, and important for passing on our cultural heritage, too. I really don’t think that this event should be completely eradicated.”

Establishing a culture and developing it is definitely a lengthy and arduous process. Any progress constitutes precious and important national assets. As times change, a growing number of customs and cultural traditions will probably be challenged by modern values. When we face such situations, we should not wantonly abolish or discard them, but rather seek to find sustainable possibilities for harmonious coexistence. We should take advantage of emerging technologies and use creative thinking to find balanced approaches to improvement – We should seek a new high ground with regard to many similar controversies, imagining more possibilities.

We should lead this land forward while at the same time preserving our precious traditional culture.

By Hsin-rung Teng/Contributing Reader

Translated from the Chinese Article by Susanne Ganz

Edited by Shawn Chou

Photo / Shutterstock