Not many of us would teach our children to drop litter, to chuck rubbish in the sea or to throw burning objects at buildings.
Yet the humble sky lantern (or Chinese lantern) can achieve these outcomes and more every time it’s released to a few “aghs” and “oohs.”
We’re not encouraged to think about what happens to a sky lantern after it’s launched. It’s the magical wonder of the floating flame that we’re meant to enjoy.
But what goes up must come down and when you start to think about that, the magical moment starts to fill a bit less magical.
It’s why a growing number of councils are banning them and we're pleased to say that Wales has implemented a ban across the whole country. And it’s why I think there’s a good case for us all just to reject them.
Sky lanterns are usually made up of a fine wire frame with fine paper wrapped around and a small piece of gauze attached at the bottom. They float for miles and then, usually when they’ve burnt out, they come down.
So what’s the problem? Here, in short, are 4 good ones.
1. They burn things down: Homes, Industrial areas, and Caravan parks have all been destroyed by them. No surprise really – they are a floating fire. Surrey’s fire service calls them a “substantial fire risk.”
2. They kill animals: They frequently land in fields, often where farmers are growing silage for their animals for winter. As the silage is harvested the lanterns, and their wire, get mashed up and the farm animals eat that wire over winter along with the hay. It causes internal bleeding and a slow and very painful death. Enough for the RSPCA and National Farmers Union to be opposed to them.
3. They kill animals (again): Smaller animals – birds, mammals and marine life – can get caught up in wires and frames and die from stress or injury. Again, the RSPCA is concerned.
4. They carry the wrong message as they float away: There are messages to teach our children and messages not to teach them. In my view, a message not to teach is “enjoy it then forget about the consequences.” Yet as we launch a sky lantern, watch it disappear from view and then turn our backs and walk inside for a hot chocolate, that’s just the message we’ve given.
As for biodegradable ones, many of them still seem to carry some wire in them. And either way, the bamboo can take decades to degrade. And litter is litter. And fire is fire.
The Government won’t ban them. Not yet anyway. They have apparently agreed they are a serious risk, but decided not a great enough risk to ban them (when weighed up against the profits I suppose). Try telling that to this owl.
And the industry itself claims they’re safe. Perhaps no surprise there. Although even they seem a little unconvinced. They recommend you launch them when winds are 3mph or less (average wind speeds in the UK are generally higher, depending on where you live). They also recommend you don’t launch them anywhere “inappropriate.” Although presumably you also need to ensure they don’t float anywhere inappropriate after you’ve let go...?
None of that deals with the problems above anyway.
So no ban. It’s up to each of us to choose what to do then.
There are wonderful alternatives to this madness, pleasingly. Making ground lanterns is one. It’s a similar experience, just without the floating bit (and the death and destruction…). And it’s fun with the kids. Here’s how:
Take a paper shopping bag.
Cut a pattern in to the sides.
Put some sand in the bottom – an inch or two deep.
Put a tea light on the sand and light it.
Do that a few times if you like, to create an array of stunning glowing lights outside.
The owls will love you for it.
By Neil Kingsnorth