Putting sky lanterns under the spotlight

Published August 6th, 2011. Filed in: Articles & Information

UKFR member Chris KoF has used the Freedom of Information Act to go digging behind the scenes of the debate over the use of sky lanterns and reports on his findings.

Back in June this year, Defra issued a press release on behalf of Jim Paice MP, minister for agriculture and food, reporting that the minister had written to the chief executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA) asking for the BHA’s assistance in “encouraging venues for events such as weddings and other celebrations to stop allowing the use of sky lanterns.” This resulted in press coverage in national and regional newspapers. A copy of the press release can be found here.

A freedom of information act request has revealed that the Defra letter to the BHA was prompted and accompanied by a report produced by the Women’s Food and Farming Union (WFFU) claiming to show evidence of the damage caused by sky lanterns in the countryside and demanding a ban on their use.

The WFFU was founded in 1979 and is a voluntary organisation which says it is “committed to promoting an understanding of, and confidence in, all aspects of quality British produce” under the strap line of ‘Linking Producer with Consumer’.

In the summer of 2010, the WFFU made a “request for evidence” on sky lanterns which it posted in the Farmers Guardian and Farmers Weekly magazines as well as the Farmers Weekly website forum. During the course of that August, the WFFU says it received 45 responses to this request. This then provided the factual foundation to its report, supplemented by local press coverage of sky lantern incidents, featuring comments by WFFU members and others.

The arguments put forward by the WFFU in support of a ban primarily focus on the risk of injury or death to animals caused by them eating wires or through chopped-up pieces of sky lanterns being incorporated into hay or straw which is then eaten by animals; and the risk of fire associated with lanterns landing before their flames have extinguished themselves. It also argues that sky lanterns are a form of littering. The organisation claims that the lanterns should be banned under EU Hazardous Waste legislation and rejects the use of biodegradable lanterns as it claims there are no standards for what that means.

The report claims that other countries including Germany, Australia, Malta and parts of China have full or partial bans due to fire risk. The WFFU also collected signatures for a petition seeking to ban sky lanterns that was handed in to 10 Downing Street on 25 November 2010; it has publicised incidents of sky lanterns landing on farm property and through its members has sought to place parliamentary questions on the use of sky lanterns.

Chinese Sky Lantern

A safely lit lantern on its way.

Defra itself has said that it needs to gather more information about the potential damage caused by sky lanterns. In a written answer to a parliamentary question on 19 October 2010 Jim Paice MP said that the government had anecdotal evidence of the damage caused by sky lanterns but “this is insufficient to make any estimates of losses incurred. We have met with the farming unions and others in order to begin to build an evidence base of the problems caused.

“DEFRA and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) are aware of concerns about the damage caused by Chinese lanterns and are looking into possible actions to reduce the risks posed. BIS will also be working with local authority trading standards to encourage importers to improve the safety of these products and to make them fully biodegradable.”

The Freedom of Information Act has also revealed that Defra has begun to compile what it refers to as an “evidence log”. Over the period November 2009 and March 2011 it reports a total of 36 reported sky lantern incidents. Of those incidents nine are reported as involving livestock and six refer to fires.

Regardless of the position taken by Defra, earlier this summer the National Farmers Union (NFU) expressed its concerns over the use of sky lanterns, issuing a press release that was widely reported locally discouraging their use during the hottest months of the summer.

At the same time, the Chief Fire Officers‘ Association (CFOA) has taken a stance. In July it asked Fire and Rescue Services to “discourage the use of the floating paper lanterns” and “asks members of the public and event organisers to refrain from using them. Whilst these lanterns are undoubtedly a popular and beautiful sight, the potential damage they can cause is significant.” The CFOA is calling for a review of the sale and use of sky lanterns. Whether this position was taken as a result of lobbying by farmers’ groups or independently based on its own evidence is not known.

Just this week (5 August 2011) Glastonbury Festival guru Michael Eavis joined Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service to highlight the issues associated with their use.

Night Sky Lanterns based in Harrogate is one of the largest importers and retailers of sky lanterns in the UK and has been active in advocating the responsible use of sky lanterns as well as improving the overall quality of sky lanterns and addressing concerns expressed over their manufacture and use.

“We have met with Trading Standards several times and they are, after having independent testing done on our lanterns, satisfied that we have a high quality product that they are quite happy for us to continue selling,” said Mark Sellers at Night Sky Lanterns.

According to Night Sky Lanterns, about a year ago, the market was flooded with sky lanterns containing two thin strips of metal at the base of the lantern. However, the majority of UK retailers now offer lanterns that are 100% wire free. Its view is that high quality lanterns are perfectly safe when used responsibly in good weather conditions. They don’t cause noise pollution and don’t spread harmful chemicals across the countryside when released.

Chinese Lantern

This lantern features a good quality, non-drip fuel cell. However the industry has gone further and is now also removing the wire supports (as shown here) too, in favour of string, ensuring lanterns pose minimal risks to livestock.

“We contacted the NFU in 2010 to try and resolve some of their concerns regarding sky lanterns. Months later we received a response welcoming our approach. We then organised a meeting with the NFU and had a lengthy telephone conference to discuss the improvements we were making to our lanterns. The meeting was very productive and the NFU representative indicated that they were looking for a wire free option and not an outright ban”, said Lewis Sellers, also at Night Sky Lanterns.

“That day we received an email from the NFU saying the meeting was a ‘great success’ and had helped them to understand what some of the main issues were for us as an importer/manufacturer. However, the following day the NFU said they were going to push for an outright ban on the sale of lanterns,” said Lewis.

According to Lewis, it has become apparent that there are still low quality lanterns on the market that should not be for sale. High quality lanterns are manufactured from thick flame retardant paper to help retain heat – this enables quick inflation and ensures the lantern makes a vertical ascent. The fuel cell should be easy to light and non drip providing a constant heat that ensures the lantern will remain airborne and will not return whilst still lit. The majority of lanterns now contain no wire and instead use biodegradable string to ensure minimum impact on the environment.

“We would really like to continue our dialogue with government agencies to put some of the issues surrounding sky lanterns at rest. We are extremely proactive in improving our products and believe our white traditional lanterns are the safest, most environmentally friendly lanterns available,” said Lewis.

“At present there is no legislation for the lanterns, however, we’ve carried out various tests for the presence of asbestos, general product safety and a flame retardant test. Our lanterns passed all of these,” said Mark.

There are very practical guidelines on the responsible use of sky lanterns. According to Night Sky Lanterns:

  1. Under no circumstances should you attempt to launch sky lanterns in windy conditions as this could result in damage to trees or property.
  2. Do not launch a damaged sky lantern as this may be dangerous and cause injury.
  3. Do not launch in an area that could cause a fire such as near trees, crops and hay bales etc.
  4. Obstacles in the path of the lantern such as buildings and trees should be at least 30 metres away.
  5. Do not release the lantern in an area where the glow could be considered as a distress signal.
  6. Prior to use, ensure lanterns are stored in a dry and secure place away from children.
  7. Do not light or release a sky lantern wearing flammable clothing. For additional safety, gloves should be worn. The sky lantern should not be left unattended at any time.
  8. Do not launch a sky lantern within 5 miles of an airfield or airport.
  9. Launching a sky lantern in an inappropriate location or manner may cause damage to persons or property which could make you liable for criminal damage and prosecution.

The debate over the use of sky lanterns remains very much alive.

Chris KoF.

Chris KoF has no connection with any of the parties named in this article.

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