Sky lanterns, aka Chinese lanterns or Kǒngmíng lanterns, have been used for centuries in China, Thailand, and other Asian countries for festivals and celebrations – and originally – war.
But as the environmental concerns with using balloons grow, the use of sky lanterns is becoming popular in other countries outside of Asia as well.
There’s no doubt that sky lanterns can look beautiful when released into the air in celebration or remembrance, but are they bad for the environment?
Although they may be beautiful and (arguably) more eco-friendly than balloons, sky lanterns aren’t exactly good for the environment themselves.
Continue reading to learn why this is the case.
What Are Sky Lanterns Made Of?
The composition and structure of sky lanterns is actually pretty simple.
Sky lanterns consist of a frame that is made from wire – or in an effort to be more eco-friendly, bamboo.
The wire frame is covered with thin, treated paper that allows the lantern to illuminate when lit.
The lantern is propelled by an open flame heat and light source which causes the lantern to fill with air and lift and float off into the sky, where it remains until the fire is extinguished.
Think of it as a miniature hot air balloon made from paper instead of nylon and polyester as with the large, traditional hot air balloon.
5 Reasons Why Sky Lanterns Are Bad for the Environment
Since they are made from paper instead of synthetic rubber the way that balloons are, you may assume that sky lanterns are good for the environment.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that sky lanterns are good for the environment.
There isn’t one singular reason why sky lanterns are bad for the environment, but rather a variety of reasons that we’ll break down in more detail.
1. Sky Lanterns Are a Fire Hazard
Perhaps one of the biggest environmental issues with sky lanterns is that they are a fire hazard.
The treated paper that is used to make sky lanterns is often designed to be flame resistant to prevent the lantern itself from catching on fire. But that doesn’t prevent other things from catching on fire.
The idea is that the fire inside the lantern should extinguish itself when the lantern floats high enough or when it runs out of fuel or wax to burn.
However, this isn’t always what happens.
Sky lanterns can cause wildfires when they are used too close to vegetation, or when wind or other weather conditions carry them close to vegetation.
However, sky lanterns can also venture too close to buildings and cause fires that way as well.
It’s worth noting that some of the fire hazards of sky lanterns can be prevented with a little common sense.
For example, the U.S. National Park Service recommends using sky lanterns away from all trees, vegetation, and buildings, particularly when conditions are dry.
They also recommend only using them on clear days and not on days where it is windy or rainy, which can affect the flight of the lantern.
However, not everyone uses sky lanterns responsibly, which has led to sky lanterns being banned in at least 29 U.S. states and more than 10 countries.
Plus, sky lanterns can be a fire hazard to humans themselves due to mishandling them and wearing flammable clothing.
2. Sky Lanterns Are Dangerous to Wildlife
Another reason why sky lanterns are bad for the environment is due to the risk that they pose to wildlife.
The reality is that what goes up, must come down and unfortunately, there’s no telling where a sky lantern will come down at.
The lanterns can travel for miles and may end up in oceans, streams, forests, or really anywhere, which also means that all wildlife is put at risk.
The biggest harm to wildlife comes from ingesting the lantern.
Especially if the lantern ends up in the ocean, it can get mistaken for food – for example, a jellyfish – by aquatic organisms.
If the lantern is ingested, many animals may choke on it or can’t digest it properly, which could end up injuring or even killing them.
Plus, having a wire or bamboo frame makes it easy for animals to get tangled in the frame or they may even try to ingest the frame as well.
Birds are especially prone to get trapped in sky lanterns, especially during flight.
3. Sky Lanterns Aren’t Totally Biodegradable
We don’t want to say that sky lanterns aren’t biodegradable, because that’s not entirely true.
In fact, the paper covering as well as the frame – if it’s made from bamboo – are biodegradable.
Assuming the lantern does land somewhere safely without setting things on fire or causing harm to wildlife, at least the paper part of the lantern will biodegrade over time. The bamboo frame will biodegrade as well.
But the amount of time it takes for both the paper and the frame to biodegrade will depend on the environmental conditions where the balloon lands.
It could take several months or even years before this happens.
Also, if the sky lantern has a wire frame, the frame itself won’t biodegrade even if the paper around it does. This means that the wire frame will still be there to cause harm to wildlife.
4. Sky Lanterns Are Not Recyclable
Even though they are made mostly of paper, sky lanterns are not recyclable.
Of course, the user of a sky lantern couldn’t recycle one afterward because it’s highly unlikely that you would get the lantern back.
Rather, the fact that they aren’t recyclable is bad because it prevents someone who stumbles across one somewhere in the environment from recycling the lantern as well.
The biggest reason why sky lanterns are not recyclable is that you would have to separate the lantern into different components in order to recycle them.
This could technically be done, but since the paper itself is usually treated, it hinders the recyclability of the sky lantern because the paper covering can’t be recycled with other paper materials.
5. Sky Lanterns Can’t Be Reused
The final reason why sky lanterns are bad for the environment is that they can’t be reused, at least not for their intended purpose.
The person that used the sky lantern originally wouldn’t be able to reuse it, because again, the chances that they would get it back are extremely low.
There’s a slim chance that someone that stumbled upon a sky lantern may be able to reuse it assuming that it was still completely intact and had a fuel source in it.
If the sky lantern was intact but didn’t have a fuel source, you could use it as decor.
But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to reuse a sky lantern for its intended purpose.
Are Sky Lanterns Illegal?
We mentioned earlier that there are several countries around the world in which sky lanterns have been banned completely or made illegal in some way.
However, there are many places in which sky lanterns are not illegal but do have regulations in place as to how and when you can use them.
Still, some places have no laws or regulations at all regarding sky lanterns and their use.
Are There Eco-Friendly Sky Lanterns?
There are some sky lanterns that are marketed as being eco-friendly due to being made with flame-retardant paper and bamboo frames, for example.
However, these “eco-friendly” sky lanterns pose the same risks to the environment – as mentioned above – as regular sky lanterns that aren’t marketed as eco-friendly.
3 Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Sky Lanterns
If you want an eco-friendly way to celebrate or remember someone, then it is best to steer away from any “releasables” such as sky lanterns or balloons.
(By the way, if you’re looking for eco-friendly alternatives to balloons, check out our article here.)
Here are some better alternatives to sky lanterns.
1. Biodegradable Confetti
Biodegradable confetti is a better alternative to plastic confetti because as the name implies, it will biodegrade.
Plus, confetti is generally small enough that it won’t pose a risk to wildlife.
But, if you want the most eco-friendly confetti, consider getting a hole-puncher – which comes in many unique shapes – and punching holes out of leaves.
You can also use birdseed or dried flower petals. Real flower petals, of course, not plastic or synthetic silk ones.
Luminaries can give the appearance of sky lanterns without actually releasing them into the environment.
They are typically made from paper bags and battery-operated tealights to significantly reduce the fire risk while still creating the ambiance and illumination of sky lanterns.
They can be used for celebrations as decorations or you can write a loved one’s name on one in remembrance.
3. Plant a Tree
Another great way to remember someone is to plant a tree in their memory or honor.
A tree is long-lasting and planting one won’t harm the environment – on the contrary.
As the tree grows larger and larger, it will provide a home for many types of wildlife.
What can be more eco-friendly than that?
Despite being considered by many to be an eco-friendly alternative to balloons, sky lanterns are anything but eco-friendly.
Although they do look beautiful and magical, they pose a fire risk, can harm wildlife, and can’t be recycled or reused.
Despite many sky lanterns being made of at least partially biodegradable materials, they still aren’t eco-friendly when you look at the big picture.
If you’re looking for an eco-friendly way to memorialize or celebrate someone, why not try planting a tree or creating luminaries with battery-operated tea lights?
Whatever you do, steer clear of balloons as well (here’s why).