In February, Merthyr Tydfil became the final council in Wales to ban the release of sky lanterns on council-owned land, with councils in England lining up to ban them next. What goes up must come down, and the sight of festive sky lanterns floating in the night-time skies may be coming to an end.
But how damaging to the environment are they? Thomas Barrett reports.
‘It’s like me putting a petrol bomb on a helium balloon and letting it go,’ says Hawk Honey, a campaigner who recently achieved 50,000 signatures on a petition calling on the British government to go further than the ban on council land and see them outlawed outright.
The release of sky lanterns have become a familiar fixture during festival season. In the Far East they have been around for centuries, but they’ve been a relatively recent addition to British skies.
Traditionally they are seen as a symbol of good luck, but to campaigners like Mr Honey, they’ve been associated with more instances of bad luck for it to be a coincidence.
‘Sometimes they go wrong, and the wick sets fire to the framework and brings it down early, or the wind catches it and it comes down,’ says Mr Honey.
‘People have had holes burnt in their conservatories because of them,’ he claims.
Following a 2013 blaze at a plastic recycling plant in the West Midlands, which was caused by an errant lantern, Defra produced an industry code of practice for sky lanterns which was backed by ministers as well as trading standards, setting out the guidelines that they would like to see used.
It included guidance on size, shape and manufacture and it also recommended when and where sky lanterns should not be released, such as at wind speeds at over 5mph and when near crops or haystacks.
For many, such as NFU President Minette Batters, the report didn’t go far enough.
She said: ‘The NFU has heard from plenty of farmers about the devastating damage sky lanterns have caused to their farm and the gruesome injuries they can cause to livestock and other animals.
Simply put, all of these lanterns must land somewhere and while they may look pretty in the sky, they also become unnecessary litter across our beautiful countryside.’
How dangerous are they?
Sky lanterns are usually made of a thin paper shell of around 30cm wide, which has an opening at the bottom that supports either the wire or fibreglass construction which holds the flame.
When lit, the flame heats the air inside the lantern causing it to rise. In theory, the sky lantern is in the air for as long as the flame is alive.
Once it goes out, the lantern will fall but campaigners argue that this theory is regularly undermined due to wind.
Another criticism levelled at sky lanterns are they present a danger to animals.
‘Animals chew them up. One time one came down on a horse and gave it horrific burns,’ says Mr Honey, who also believes that many animals may be tempted to eat them which then gets stuck in their digestive systems.
Fabio Paduanelli has been selling sky lanterns through his company, Night Sky Lanterns, for ten years. He disputes the claims made by campaigners and the NFU.
Following a release, ‘the paper will just dissolve and the bamboo stick will be picked up by birds to make nests. You won’t find a trace of a sky lantern,’ he says.
His belief that the lanterns pose little risk to animals is supported by a 2013 Defra study which stated: ‘the risk of injury and death to cattle and impact on the environment is low.’
To Mr Paduanelli, it’s frustrating. One of his key sticking points is the issue of balloons and sky lanterns have regularly been conflated.
‘It’s a funny trick campaigners are using. The only way to attack sky lanterns is to mix it with the balloon issue,’ he says, as the evidence of balloons being digested by animals is much more conclusive.
‘They have had pressure from campaigners, and they don’t know anything about sky lanterns. But instead of finding out what the real issue is, they have to come to a quick conclusion because they have other stuff to think about.
The issue with the councils is they are getting attacked by their own citizens, farmers and animal organisations within their borough, and therefore to give them an answer they come up with this restriction. It’s irrational.’
The structure of sky lanterns can differ. Night Sky Lanterns sells two types, one with wire inside to support it, and another with bamboo. The buzzword used by sellers to combat critics is usually ‘biodegradable’, but to Mr Honey, this can be disingenuous.
He says: ‘companies say they are biodegradable but when they are out at sea it doesn’t take a second for an animal to swallow it.’
Night Sky Lanterns sell the controversial wire lanterns alongside bamboo and fibreglass biodegradable versions, but Mr Paduanelli made the decision not to take them down.
‘People choose price over quality,’ he says.
On his website, a pack of 10 sky lanterns with wires cost £11.99, compared to £24.99 for 10 of the bamboo lantern.
‘If we don’t sell it, somebody else will,’ he argues. Not exactly a reassuring rebuttal, but there is a disclaimer on the website which concedes that if released on farmland, ‘the wire could damage farmers’ machinery while they operate on the land.’
As for the risk to animals, he remains sceptical.
‘Animals will spit out grass that they are not used to, but when they say they will chew metal wires, they don’t know what they are talking about.’
Mr Paduanelli also believes that websites are selling cheap and dangerous versions of the lanterns unchecked, which he claims have been smuggled into the country and are made with asbestos.
‘Who is paying the price for this? It’s the companies who promote the best and most environmentally friendly lanterns,’ he says.
‘I want to see the councils tackle the criminals.’
Up in flames
When in use, sky lanterns should remain airborne for as long as they are filled with hot air. However, lanterns sometimes drift back to land whilst still alight, which is what caused the 2013 fire in the West Midlands.
Unsurprisingly, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service aren’t fans.
They said: ‘We would ask people to think carefully before using sky lanterns and remember once lit and released there is no control over its direction or where it lands, and this could have very serious consequences.’
The Defra guidelines set out in 2014 specifically warned against people releasing the lanterns in windy conditions, which campaigners argue has failed to tackle the issue.
‘The wind on the ground could be blowing in a different direction 100ft up. Also, wind speed changes with altitude, if these things were safe, it wouldn’t matter what way the wind was blowing and how windy it was.’ says Mr Honey.
‘It will only take one of these to land on a thatched roof of a family home. The consequences of such a thing happening doesn’t bear thinking about,’ he adds.
To Mr Paduanelli though, it’s a simple case of the Defra guidelines not been properly followed.
‘If there is a lot of wind, you shouldn’t be using them. It’s common sense.’