NOTE: This article was written on October 4th, 2017. By the time I returned home to England in the summer of 2018 there was increasing talk about starting to produce less harmful, bio-degradable sky lanterns, but I haven’t heard if it came to anything. I’d be interested to hear the latest news.
Tonight, the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival (坪溪天燈節活動) will be held for the second time this year, to celebrate the Mid-autumn Festival, so it’s perhaps the perfect time to consider this controversial activity, and the impact it is having on the local environment.
It’s said that Pingxi’s sky lanterns were first used as a kind of early warning device to alarm local residents when bandits were in the area, so the activity is rooted in historical practice. Unfortunately, this original cultural/historical significance seems to have been lost on many visitors, who release the lanterns year-round these days (and often in large quantities on weekends). In my opinion, the lanterns have instead become a kind of symbol of the selfie-generation. For many tourists I’ve witnessed over the years at Pingxi (平溪) and nearby Shifen (十分), the object of the activity appears to be to have fun with friends, painting messages on the side in the slightly bizarre idea that they’ll then be carried to the gods, take a few selfie shots with the lantern in the background, wow and whoop as said lantern ascends into the air, and then post some pics on social media. It’s harmless entertainment, and this would be perfectly fine, if only it didn’t cause so much harm to the surrounding countryside.
The presumption that all (or even the majority) of the lanterns can be found and cleared up is frankly a naive and fundamentally flawed one, as anyone who knows the rugged topography of the area will immediately realize. Most sky lanterns don’t obediently fall beside trails ready to be picked up by clean-up crews. From personal experience, even those that do fall in easily accessible places sometimes don’t get picked up for weeks, maybe even months. The majority instead fall far from any trail, in often inaccessible places, where they’re left to rot. Or at least the bits that can rot are left to decompose. During several clear-ups of the area over the last few years, we’ve found quite a few abandoned lanterns (all within easy reach of good trails) that had wire frames inside, which won’t decompose for decades or even longer, and meanwhile pose a threat to wildlife as well as being a stain on the beauty of a very special landscape. The glaze used on the paper and the ink used to paint messages on the side of the lantern also contain chemicals that probably aren’t good for the environment.
I sympathize with those that love to release sky lanterns – it’s a magical activity while the lantern is lit, released, and floats up into the sky, but the truth is that it’s highly – no, extremely – unlikely that your lantern will ever be picked up and disposed of in the correct matter.
A major argument in favor of continuing the year-round sale of sky lanterns is that they’ve become a hot tourist draw, and the money they bring in is a major boost to the local economy. However, the upper Keelung Valley, in which Pingxi lies, is an area of uncommon scenic and cultural interest, with a whole clutch of spectacular waterfalls, some of the finest hiking in New Taipei City, several atmospheric, historic villages with good local food, an interesting history, and its own quaint branch railway line. Even without the sky lanterns, the area won’t have a major challenge attracting tourists.
I certainly don’t think releasing sky lanterns should be banned outright, even if that were possible. Instead I’d suggest the activity (lanterns are presently released throughout the year) is limited to two annual events: the Lantern Festival and tonight’s Mid-autumn Festival celebration, when limited numbers will be released in relatively controlled conditions. In that way a much-loved activity could continue, the number of lanterns littering the surrounding landscape will decline dramatically, and this stunning corner of our beautiful island will hopefully start to recover from the ever-increasing onslaught of trash that’s threatening to destroy its enchanting beauty.