16 October 2013
Photo by elwillo via Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons
Sky lanterns, also known as Chinese Lanterns in most cases are made from fire-retardant paper and hold a fuel cell often supported by wire. They are often released in large numbers, and have come under scrutiny for their potential environmental impact.
In May 2012, the then Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development, John Griffiths AM, proposed research to develop the evidence base on the impact of lantern and balloon releases and, if justified by the evidence, to scope the options for additional steps that could be taken to mitigate those impacts.
In May 2013 the Welsh Government and Defra published the findings of a joint report on the impacts of sky lanterns in England and Wales. The main conclusions of the project team were:
Risks to livestock and animal health
- Anecdotal reports and media coverage suggest widespread concern from farming groups and others over the impacts of sky lanterns on the health and welfare of livestock and horses.
- The number of cases reported each year of animals affected through panic and fright and of ingestion of sky lantern debris is very small, although may be under-represented.
- The overall impact is of minor significance.
- Given that individual incidents have the potential to cause significant disruption, loss of property and risk to human and animal life, the fire risk associated with the use of sky lanterns is significant.
Impacts on the environment, littering on land and at sea
- The contribution of sky lantern debris to overall environmental littering is small. However, the localised effects of littering can be large in certain areas.
Risks to aviation
- The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) provided evidence of 48 incidents reported to be due to sky lanterns and helium balloons between 2001 and 2012.
- Sky lanterns pose a safety risk to aviation due to possible ingestion into engines and can pose a risk to taxiing aircraft and cause delays to take-off and landing.
Risks to coastal rescue services
- Sky lanterns pose a significant risk to the proper and effective operation of coastal rescue services.
- Red sky lanterns in particular may be mistaken for distress flares.
The Sky Lantern Sector
- The current annual turnover of the UK sky lantern market is variously valued at between £6m and £16m, based on an estimated average retail price of £2 per unit.
- The companies supplying sky lanterns tend to be small in terms of the number of employees and there are probably fewer than 100 individuals directly employed within the sector in the UK. Nevertheless, the study found that this sector is associated with a significant level of economic activity.
Written statement by the Welsh Government
On 18th July 2013, in response to the findings presented in the Defra research report, the Minister for Natural Resources and Food, Alun Davies AM, issued a statement as follows:
The evidence from this report suggests that any impact on the environment and risk of widespread injury or death to livestock is low. Given these findings, it would be difficult to justify a ban on either sky lanterns or helium balloons.
The Welsh Government acknowledges that provision of appropriate consumer information has an important role to play in enabling members of the public to make informed choices about whether to release sky lanterns and helium balloons.
Although not a devolved issue, we support the UK Government in taking forward work to ensure that manufacturers place clear warnings on packaging. We will be closely monitoring the progress of the UK Government in working with retailers, manufacturers and others to improve public awareness of how to use these products responsibly.
Alun Davies AM has also written to local authorities and charitable organisations encouraging them to consider the risks from sky lanterns and helium balloons in their areas.
Defra Report: AC0229 – Sky lanterns and helium balloons: an assessment of impacts on livestock and the environment, May 2013.
National Assembly for Wales, P-04-385 Petition regarding balloon and lantern releases, 1 May 2012
Welsh Government, Written statements: Proposed actions following the publication of the independent research report on the impact of mass releases of sky lanterns and helium balloons , July 2013
UK Government Jim Paice: sky lanterns are causing problems in our countryside 19 June 2011.
Article by Philip Donkersley