Fireworks and sky lantern displays can brighten up holiday celebrations, but 67-year-old Lin Ming-te (林明德), who has just concluded his sixth garbage-collecting tour around the country, is worried that the environmental pollution they create may be permanent.
Widely known as “Taiwan’s Forrest Gump,” Lin’s passion for cleanliness started out simple, with him rising early every day to dust and sweep the areas in and outside his home. That was until about 15 years ago, when he decided to step up his efforts to protect the environment by embarking on cross-country trips to pick up trash along the way.
Lin’s travels have brought him to almost every corner of the nation except for Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島) in the South China Sea and the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea.
Although Lin was able to finish most of the tours within 30 days, he once spent more than 900 days on the road, cleaning up and taking time to savor the beauty of the country that he has worked so hard to preserve.
Lin said his travels have led him to discover two other potential threats to the environment: traditional cultural events and election campaigns.
Official statistics show that the nation’s two most popular festivals — Greater Tainan’s Yanshui Beehive Fireworks (鹽水蜂炮) festival and New Taipei City’s (新北市) Pingsi Sky Lantern Festival — attract an average of 550,000 people each year, Lin said.
“The statistics showed that the 200 cannon walls installed for the annual fireworks festival could create up to 120 tonnes of firework debris, while visitors to the four-day sky lantern festival usually launch more than 1,000 wish-bearing sky lanterns and leave behind 64 tonnes of garbage,” Lin said.
Lin added that there was one incident where one of the sky lanterns flew as far away as Greater Taichung.
Lin said that after this year’s Yanshui fireworks festival, held on Feb. 23 and 24 in Greater Tainan’s Sinying District (新營), the city’s Environmental Protection Bureau had to clean up at least 58 tonnes of firework detritus left by nearly 260,000 people.
“In addition, the Environmental Protection Administration’s air quality monitoring data showed that the fine particle pollution reading for Sinying during the two days reached between 48 and 192 micrograms per cubic meter, while the reading for the city’s Annan District (安南) — where the Taiwan International Fireworks Festival was held during the same period — reached between 46 and 176 micrograms per cubic meter,” Lin said.
While most local governments have enthusiastically endorsed large-scale celebrations in recent years to boost tourism, few of them pay heed to the environmental pollution these activities create, he said.
Fireworks cause air pollution, while their debris can also pollute the water table, posing a threat not only to the environment, but also to public health, he said.
“As for the custom of releasing sky lanterns, it can create massive waste and may even lead to mountain fires,” he said.
However, Lin’s repeated calls to the central and local governments to decrease the frequency of such events has yielded few results. That included a meeting with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in August to discuss the matter.
“I have met with premiers, Cabinet members and local government heads to discuss the issue. Even though some of them seemed to agree with my opinions during our meetings, they just keep on holding fireworks shows and launching sky lanterns,” Lin said.
“That really frustrates me,” he added.
Lin said someone once told him that his campaign could hinder some people’s plans to make easy money.
“Large-scale events create garbarge that needs to be cleaned up, and the clean-up work creates a chance for others to make money,” the person told him.
“No wonder some local government heads refused to meet you,” Lin quoted the person as saying to him at the time.
Several years ago, Lin wrote a letter to the then-Taipei County Government warning it of the environmental damage sky lanterns could bring.
However, to Lin’s astonishment, the county government replied by saying: “The sky lanterns will decompose naturally with time.”
“Is polluting the environment an absolutely unavoidable consequence of such events? Aren’t there many eco-friendly alternatives to [fireworks and sky lanterns]? Why not put the money to better use, such as providing denture subsidies to the elderly?” Lin asked.
“I don’t know how long I have left to live, but I will continue to stand up for my beliefs for as long as I can walk,” he said.
Additional Reporting by Wang Han-ping