are paper lanterns bad for the environment

Are Paper Lanterns Bad for the Environment? (Explained!)

Last Updated on August 4, 2023 by Annie Baldwin

Paper lanterns are a popular decor choice worldwide, especially for celebrations and festivals.

But there are rising concerns about the environmental impact of releasing these lanterns into the sky.

This article takes an in-depth look at paper lanterns to determine if they truly harm the environment.

Are Paper Lanterns Bad for the Environment?

A night sky full of lit paper lanterns
Sky lanterns are a well-known tradition in multiple cultures and are celebrated around the world for different reasons, such as for making wishes, celebrating holidays, or mourning the passing of a loved one. Image Credit: One Green Planet

Yes, traditional paper lanterns with plastic components and chemical coatings are environmentally harmful overall, based on the available research.

While biodegradable options reduce risks, even eco-friendly lanterns can still negatively impact wildlife and habitats if released outdoors rather than enjoyed stationary.

Proper disposal is crucial.

Key Points

  • Popular lanterns contain plastic, wires, and toxic coatings that persist when littered
  • Lanterns can entangle and be ingested by wildlife, leading to injury and death
  • Chemical residues released while littering can be toxic to animals and ecosystems
  • Safer biodegradable alternatives made with rice paper or bamboo are available
  • Enjoying lanterns stationary rather than releasing them avoids environmental harm

What Are Traditional Sky Lanterns Made Of?

The typical sky lantern consists of a paper balloon-like body with an opening at the bottom where a fuel cell, usually containing a wad of fuel-soaked cardboard or a candle, is suspended.

The lantern lifts off when the fuel cell is lit.

Traditional sky lanterns are made of materials like thin plastic or paper treated with chemicals to make them lightweight and flame-retardant.

This raises concerns about plastic litter and toxic substances released when lit.

Do Any Biodegradable Paper Lantern Alternatives Exist?

Yes, some companies are producing eco-friendly sky lanterns made from materials like untreated rice paper or bamboo.

These alternative lanterns do not contain plastics, wires, or chemical coatings.

While greener options exist, most paper lanterns sold worldwide are still made from chemically-treated, non-biodegradable materials.

What Are the Dangers to Wildlife From Sky Lanterns?

The remains of lanterns that land in oceans, forests, or nature can be ingested by animals who mistake debris for food.

Livestock like cows have died from ingesting lantern parts.

Birds, fish, and other wildlife often become entangled in lantern frames, wires, and ribbons.

This can lead to severe injury or death.

The impact on endangered species is particularly concerning.

Do Lanterns Cause Fires When They Land?

Yes, paper lanterns present a major fire hazard if they land while lit or still hot.

These uncontrolled landings regularly result in fires worldwide when lanterns drop onto dry grass, forests, buildings, or urban areas.

Some places like Germany and Austria have banned sky lanterns for this reason.

Is It Possible to Safely Conduct Sky Lantern Releases?

While environmental groups strongly advise against any mass release events, there are some precautions individuals can take to minimize risks: use 100% natural biodegradable lanterns, remove wires and fuel cells, avoid release during dry conditions, add water to the fuel, launch away from populated areas, obtain permits, and carefully monitor wind directions.

However, risks remain even with precautions.

Do Lanterns Eventually Biodegrade After Landing?

Natural paper and bamboo lanterns will degrade over time.

However, many popular sky lanterns contain wires, plastics, or chemical coatings that never fully break down.

These synthetic components and toxins can persist for decades polluting land and waterways before degrading.

Properly biodegradable lanterns reduce, but don’t eliminate, litter risks.

What Are the Arguments Around Banning Sky Lanterns?

Colorful balloons on the left side and litter of sky lanterns and balloon on the right
Sky lanterns are harmful despite being made of paper since they contribute to pollution, provide a fire risk, and may harm wildlife. Image Credit: Daily Express

Due to the major fire hazards and risks to animals, many jurisdictions have either banned sky lantern releases entirely or introduced strict regulations around their use.

Opponents argue bans would prevent thousands of injuries and deaths annually.

Others believe bans are excessive since precautions can minimize some risks.

Ultimately, consumers should research local laws before any release event.

Are There Alternative Uses For Sky Lanterns Besides Releases?

While most lanterns are designed for mass release, many people repurpose them into decorative items.

Lanterns can make beautiful stationary garden decor when anchored with weights or secured on posts.

Used for ambiance rather than release, lanterns pose no environmental risk and their charm can still be enjoyed.

Repurposing is a sustainable option.

Are Small Backyard Lantern Releases Okay?

While large-scale releases are riskier, even small personal releases in backyards pose some threats.

Winds can still carry lanterns far distances quickly.

Instead of releases, use sky lanterns for ambiance by keeping them stationary.

But avoid tethering where animals could become entangled.

Enjoy their beauty safely on display instead.

Do Sky Lanterns Decrease Litter From Helium Balloons?

Proponents argue sky lanterns are better for the environment than helium balloon releases, which also entangle wildlife at high rates.

However, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Improper disposal harms the environment regardless of litter type.

Consumers should avoid releasing either balloons or lanterns into the environment and find safer alternatives to celebrate.

Is Releasing Paper Lanterns Bad for the Environment?

Yes, releasing sky lanterns is detrimental to the environment, even when using biodegradable lanterns marketed as eco-friendly.

Wind can quickly carry lanterns long distances into forests, oceans, and other natural habitats.

The lantern debris and chemical residues can persist for years, harming animals that ingest or become entangled in them.

Biodegradable lanterns reduce but don’t eliminate harm.

For this reason, many jurisdictions have banned public and even private lantern releases.

While beautiful ceremonially, the safest option is to keep paper lanterns anchored and stationary.

Mass release events should be prohibited globally to protect wildlife and ecosystems from dangerous litter.

Do Paper Lanterns Biodegrade?

Natural paper and bamboo sky lanterns will fully biodegrade over time.

However, most popular paper lanterns contain metal wires, plastics, or chemical coatings that prevent full decomposition.

These synthetic components can remain intact for many months or even years before finally breaking down once littered.

Some residue may never fully disappear from environments.

Untreated plant-based lanterns are safest if releases continue, but far better is ceasing releases altogether.

What States Ban Paper Lanterns?

States with full or partial bans on sky lantern releases include California, Hawaii, Washington, Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Tennessee, and Florida.

Some cities like Baltimore and Tucson also have local bans.

Many states restrict releases and require permits or allow only biodegradable lanterns.

Consumers should research all state and city laws before any public or private release event to avoid legal penalties.

Lawmakers globally are increasingly concerned about lantern litter.

How Do You Make Eco-Friendly Lanterns?

To make eco-friendly lanterns, use untreated paper like rice paper and avoid any plastic components, wires, or chemical coatings.

Never use regular copy paper. Construct frames fully from bamboo or wood.

Beeswax or soy candles are safer fuel sources than petroleum-based wax.

Wrap candles in natural fiber like hemp. Create artwork using plant-based paints or markers.

While handmade lanterns are greener, not releasing them is ideal. Stationary displays are the safest.

What Happens When You Light a Paper Lantern?

As the flame or LED light source heats the inside air, the lantern floats up into the sky.

This keeps going until the fire or batteries extinguish and the lantern cools and descends.

The lantern may float a mile or more high during this process.

With wind, lanterns can drift over 20 miles horizontally from release points, ending up almost anywhere.

This makes controlling or recovering littered lanterns nearly impossible, increasing pollution and fire risks.

Will a Ban on Paper Lanterns Increase Cultural Understanding?

Some argue bans could isolate cultures with sky lantern traditions, while others believe eliminating releases fosters understanding by forcing the creation of new sustainable traditions.

Either way, the environmental harm caused by lantern litter must be weighed against cultural benefits.

Through education and alternatives like stationary lantern displays, cultural practices can adapt positively while protecting nature from needless pollution and harm.

In Summary

While beautiful, traditional sky lanterns often contain plastics and chemicals that make them environmentally problematic.

Safer biodegradable options are available.

But precautions and regulations can only minimize some risks if countries continue allowing releases.

Support bans or enjoy stationary displays to reduce harm.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are LED Lights Better For the Environment Than Lanterns?

Yes. LED lights are reusable, don’t release chemical pollutants, and are safer alternatives for holiday decorating and celebrations both indoors and outdoors. They are the more eco-friendly option.

Can Sky Lanterns Be Recycled?

Unfortunately, most traditional paper lanterns cannot be recycled easily since they contain mixed materials like wires, plastics, and coatings. Check manufacturer guidelines for any recycling options, but reuse or repurposing is usually better.

What Should I Do With Old Lanterns?

Either safely dispose of non-biodegradable lanterns in the trash or consider repurposing them into decorative items like garden art by removing wires and anchoring them permanently.

Are Small Battery Operated Lanterns Safer?

Battery-powered LED lanterns that remain tethered and turned off when not in use are the safest for the environment. Never release balloons or untethered lanterns outdoors.

At GreenChiCafe, we are passionate about exploring green living topics and sustainability. Please check out our website for more in-depth content about eco-conscious living ideas.

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