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Finding the balance between cultural tradition & environmental preservation

by Katie Birtles

Humans love to celebrate. For millennia, we've marked our world with ancient rituals, seasonal celebrations and cherished festivals. These perennial traditions have passed through the generations, evolving to reflect the modern era. 

Sadly, the current modern touch has influenced an infusion of pollution, plastic and waste on our cultural celebrations. We use toxic chemicals in our fireworks, non-biodegradable plastics in our lanterns, balloons and confetti, and pour waste into our rivers and landfill - and it's ruining our planet. 

The problem begs for a reevaluation of the way we celebrate, in order to find the balance between tradition and environmental preservation. 

We've rounded up eight of the most environmentally destructive festive traditions and the eco-friendly alternatives you can try instead. 

1. River floats

loy-krathong-festival-river-thailand

The release of decorative rafts and floats into waterways is a significant tradition found in many Asian festivals. Most recently, Thailand celebrated their annual Loy Krathong festival, one of the most important events in the Thai calendar, held to pay respect to the river spirits and Phra Mae Khongkha, the Goddess of Water.

People around the country gather along the winding rivers and canals to offer thanks to the river spirits by releasing lotus shaped rafts (krathong) into the water. The krathong are adorned with flowers, coins, candles and incense and are lit up before being set off with a wish to bring luck.

It’s a beautiful cultural event, marked with traditional dancing and night long celebrations throughout the country. It’s also ruining the rivers. Thousands of people line the banks, throwing tons of rubbish into the water in mere hours.

Traditionally, krathong are made from biodegradable materials such as banana leaf, but modern rafts are often made with plastics and styrofoam, causing serious pollution in the waterways.

In 2017, Bangkok’s city officials pulled 811,945 krathong from the waterways. Although 93.6% were made from natural materials, the remaining 51,964 krathong were made from non-biodegradable styrofoam.

In a city of over 8 million people and country of over 69 million, there would have been thousands more krathong left to clog the waterways of Bangkok and other major cities including Chiang Mai, Phuket and Ayyuthaya.

Eco-friendly alternatives to river floats

With an increasing number of tourists flocking to the festival to partake in this cultural experience, there’s more need for environmental awareness. If you’d like to participate in Loy Krathong or the many other festivals that involve releasing floats into the water, ensure your float is environmentally friendly. 

You can release a krathong baked out of bread which can dissolve in the water and be eaten by fish. You could also use petals or release a float into a smaller body of water (such as a pool) so it can be easily retrieved.

2. Releasing balloons or sky lanterns

loy-krathong-chiang-mai-sky-lantern-festival-thailand

What began in third century China as a signal between soldiers, is now a popular festive tradition all over the world. Releasing sky lanterns is common for cultural festivals, weddings and to honour loved ones. The sight of the drifting lanterns illuminating the night sky is quite enchanting, yet it’s also deadly.

The lanterns are made from paper, string, bamboo or wire frames and use a candle or fuel cell to lift off into the sky. Once released, they’re a major fire hazard. They’ve wreaked havoc around the world, causing a 500-acre wildfire in Washington and a massive blaze at a recycling plant in the UK that took three days to extinguish.

In India, a sky lantern caused four houses to burst into flames severely injuring 15 people, while in South Carolina, a lantern caused a fire that destroyed 800 acres of land.

Sky lanterns are a particularly prominent tradition in southeast Asia, although government’s are beginning to impose restrictions due to their destructive nature. The government banned sky lanterns in Vietnam after they caused 20 forest fires in only seven months, while Thailand has also taken steps to ban the sale of lanterns around major festivals.

The lanterns also pose a terrible danger to livestock and wildlife. Once they fall back to earth they can maim animals, strangling birds that get entangled in the wires and killing animals that unknowingly ingest the lanterns. Even ‘biodegradable’ lanterns are extremely harmful, as the materials still take a long time to decompose.

Balloon releases are similarly destructive, taking years to decompose and harming wildlife. It’s the same as throwing litter on the ground.

Eco-friendly alternatives to sky lanterns and balloon releases

To recreate the magic of a sky lantern or balloon release, you could blow bubbles or create a luminary. Bubbles are fun to create and they make a beautiful display as they drift off into the sky, while a stunning light display can be created by placing candles into glass jars. You can then keep the jar as a beautiful keepsake.

3. Throwing confetti or rice

confetti-explosion-festival

 An explosion of confetti or glitter is a fun way to mark a festival, graduation or a wedding. However, once all that plastic falls to the ground, it becomes a hazard for animals who may swallow it and die.

Even if you throw the confetti indoors, you’ll have to sweep it into the garbage which goes on to landfill. Plastic confetti and glitter never breaks down and can’t be recycled, so it’s terrible for our planet.

Tossing rice over the newlyweds is a timeless wedding tradition symbolising fortune and fertility. However, birds can die from eating uncooked rice and it still litters the ground.

Eco-friendly alternatives to confetti

There are plenty of green alternatives that look fantastic and are much kinder to the environment. You can use fake snowflakes or biodegradable rice which both disintegrate when they come into contact with water. If you’re having your celebration around a grassy area, you can throw seeds which can later sprout into flowers, creating a memorable keepsake.

4. Fireworks

new-years-eve-fireworks-celebration

Originating from ninth century medieval China, the first fireworks were used in festivities to ward off evil spirits and bring luck and happiness. Centuries later, fireworks are a beloved tradition around the world, used to celebrate just about anything from cultural festivals to backyard parties.

We all love a mesmerising fireworks display, however the hard truth is that they’re bad for the environment. They cause air pollution, send chemical residue into our waterways and are a fire hazard.

From New Year’s Eve to the Fourth of July, the damage lingers in the air long after the bright sparks go out. Fireworks pollute the air with PM2.5 which are tiny, toxic particles. When these particles are inhaled, they cause severe respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease and even birth defects in babies.

A safe level of PM2.5 is 0-12, while a seriously hazardous level is 250.5 to 500.4 (it is recommended for children and the elderly to stay indoors at this level). In India, the mass use of fireworks during the 2016 Diwali celebrations caused PM2.5 levels to reach 883 in Delhi.

In Spain, the hazardous metal particle pollution from Girona’s 2008 Sant Joan fireworks fiesta lingered in the air for days, while Guy Fawkes is often the most polluted day of the year in the UK, thanks to mass bonfires and fireworks.

Meanwhile, the fireworks that fall to the ground leave residue from colourants and unburnt propellants, washing into lakes and rivers. Along with the particle pollution that eventually falls to the ground, all these chemicals pose a serious health hazard for our water sources.

Eco-friendly alternatives to fireworks

To avoid the damage of fireworks without giving up the magic, we can use hand-held sparklers, glow-in-the-dark bubbles or light show projectors. Outdoor laser shows are a popular communal option as they put on a brilliant display of colour lights without the pollution. They also eliminate the loud noise that can be quite distressing for our dogs and other animals.

If you can’t give up the real thing, always attend a community show rather than putting on your own display. That way, you’ll cut back on pollution while enjoying a safer show.

5. Christmas trees

christmas-tree-pine-tree-tradition

The merry fir tree is an iconic image of Christmas. Each December, people all over the world revel in the tradition of decorating their trees and placing wrapped gifts beneath the branches to be opened on Christmas Day.

With an onslaught of trussed up trees popping up in homes and cities all over the world, it’s important to know the environmental impact of this much-loved ritual.

Whether you choose an artificial tree or the real deal, both have their setbacks. A fake tree can be used year after year, however these plastic imitations will eventually end up in landfill where they’ll never break down. Furthermore, artificial trees are often made from petroleum-based plastics, sending harmful toxins into the air during production.

On the other hand, real trees absorb harmful greenhouse gases while they’re growing and are 100% biodegradable. Unfortunately, most tree growers use pesticides and chemical fertilisers, while many farms raze large tracts of land to grow crops of fir trees just for the holiday season.

Eco-friendly alternatives to Christmas trees

When faced with the perennial problem of fake vs real, your most eco-friendly option is to choose a real tree. Be sure to get your tree from a local, organic farm and recycle it after Christmas (many local councils pick up trees and can turn them into mulch).

Even better, select a tree that still has its roots intact so you can plant it outdoors after the holidays and reuse it next year. Another great option is to buy a seed to grow your own tree. It may take a while to grow, but you’ll be giving the planet it’s own little Christmas gift.

If you prefer a fake spruce or would like to begin a new eco-friendly Christmas tradition, you could make your own tree out of recyclable materials or decorate the pot plants around your home.

6. Throwing coloured powders

india holi festival cultural tradition coloured powders

The tradition of throwing of brightly coloured powders originates from Holi, the dazzling Hindu festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.

It's a joyous affair, with thousands of revellers taking to the streets to throw a kaleidoscope of meaningfully coloured powders. The tradition of throwing these beautiful colours has merrily spread across the world, however the powders are surprisingly harmful.

The artificial colours used in the powders are made from highly structured polymers which never bio-degrade, causing toxic pollution to our soil and waterways. The powders are also be dangerous for humans, as the harsh chemicals in the colours provoke allergies such as asthma, cause rashes on the skin, and can also cause serious problems with the eyes and respiratory tract.

Eco-friendly alternatives to coloured powders

The best green alternative is to make your own eco-friendly coloured powders. To recreate the vibrant colours, use natural ingredients such as turmeric for yellow, sandalwood powder for red, mehendi (henna powder) for green and beetroot for pink. You can also limit the harm of the powders by simply smearing it across your body, rather than throwing large clouds in the air.

7. Burning joss sticks

burning-joss-stick-tradition

The burning of joss sticks (a form of incense) is an ancient ritual in Chinese/Taoist culture, used to purify the home and communicate with spirits. The practice is performed in homes and temples across Asia and is an intrinsic part of daily life for many people.

It’s particularly common to burn joss sticks on the first and fifteenth of every Chinese lunar month, and the practice ramps up with many cultural festivals including Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival and the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Unfortunately, all that burning releases a hazardous amount of pollutants into the air. A 2008 study by the Chulalongkorn Clinical Research Center found that one joss stick has the same amount of cancer-causing chemicals as one cigarette.

The researchers found a shocking amount of carcinogens in the smoke emitted from joss sticks including PM2.5, metals, furans, dioxins and hydrocarbons, all of which lead to leukemia, blood, lung and bladder cancers.

Eco-friendly alternatives to burning joss sticks

Although it is difficult to regulate such a sacred tradition, you can limit exposure to the incense. Many religious groups have called for reduced burning, saying that burning large numbers of joss sticks does not equate to a higher number of blessings. Burning one joss stick in a well ventilated area, then putting it out after a minute, is enough for proper worship.

8. Carving pumpkins

hallowwen-jack-o-lantern-pumpin-carving-tradition

Halloween is the much loved holiday of all things spooky. One of the oldest traditions is carving pumpkins to create ‘jack-o’-lanterns’, with the practice originating centuries ago in Ireland. Ancient Celtic cultures carved turnips on ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ and would place a glowing ember inside them to ward off evil spirits.

This then developed into pumpkin ‘jack-o-lanterns’ with the name coming from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. Today, pumpkin carving is an integral part of Halloween celebrations around the world.

It’s also a very wasteful tradition. The US Energy Department has recently claimed that most of the 1.3 billion pounds of pumpkins produced in the U.S. end up in landfill, due to Halloween. In the UK, 18,000 tons of edible pumpkin are thrown into the garbage every Halloween. All that squash then decomposes into methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.

Eco-friendly alternatives to pumpkin carving

The US Energy Department has also announced that they’re working to develop technology that can use all that waste to harness bioenergy. This will help the country use less carbon-based fuels and reduce landfill waste. Until then, you can help to reduce the waste produced on Halloween.

Rather than throwing out the edible pumpkin after scooping out the insides, save it to make delicious soups, cakes and pies. Once your carved pumpkin begins to droop, you can compost it or donate it to your local farmer’s market to be composted.

Wayfairer takes people around the world to many special cultural celebrations. If you’d like to attend a festival and keep it eco-friendly, don't hesitate to contact our friendly team of Luxury Travel Specialists with your questions about responsible travel.

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