Hundreds of softly glowing sky lanterns float serenely up into the night sky, each carrying the hopes and wishes of the person or persons who launched it. The drifting constellation of lanterns creates a beautiful and moving scene, which has made the little town of Pingxi (平溪), nestled among the mountains of northeast Taiwan, an icon of Taiwanese culture.
In recent years, the Tourism Bureau and New Taipei City (新北市) government have been eagerly promoting this event, making the Sky Lantern Festival an essential feature of the nation’s Lunar New Year celebrations and drawing large numbers of foreign visitors.
This year the Lantern Festival comes two weeks after the Lunar New Year, while Valentine’s Day was also celebrated over the long holiday. All these festivals draw unusually large crowds to the normally quiet town of Pingsi.
While most people adorn their lanterns with personal wishes, couples wish for everlasting love, and politicians launch outsized lanterns carrying prayers for peace and prosperity for the nation.
However, how many people think about where their lanterns will end up, littering the countryside polluting the sea, or even causing a fire hazard?
Lantern-makers try to please tourists with innovative and beautiful designs, turning out an increasing numbers of lanterns, including outsized ones, to meet demand. Their lanterns may shine brighter and travel further, but unfortunately this causes related problems for an even-wider area and makes lantern litter harder to clean up.
There was a time when sky lanterns could be released from anywhere, be it city or countryside. Any small open space could be used as a launch site. As a result, there were frequent cases of lanterns landing on houses and setting them alight. Sometimes they got caught up in power lines, causing short circuits and electricity outages or else the burned-out frames fell everywhere, creating an ugly eyesore.
Eventually, the government ruled that sky lanterns could only be launched in specific, sparsely populated areas, where the wind is steady and predictable. Pingsi is one such place, and that is how it came to be the Mecca for the nation’s Sky Lantern Festival.
From time to time environmental groups remind the public about the problems associated with sky lanterns, with some refering to them as “floating trash.” Someone even suggested attaching lanterns to long pieces of string so they could not fly too far.
The tradition of releasing sky lanterns is rooted in folklore, and has developed into a tourist attraction and become a source of income. Suppressing or banning the practice would not be easy. Nevertheless, organizations that host such events need to take steps to prevent fires and littering by limiting the times and places at which lanterns can be released.
The governments of New Taipei City, Taoyuan City and other places are offering token rewards to the public to encourage them to pick up and turn in sky lantern litter. These measures have improved the recycling rate for used lanterns.
Lantern-makers should also do their bit by improving the materials they use, for example using biodegradable paper and safe, bright LED bulbs instead of hazardous kerosene.
Sky lanterns carry prayers of all kinds to the heavens. Perhaps this Lantern Festival one will carry the wish that the sky lantern tradition can be made more environmentally friendly.