Chinese New Year is the most important and most significant celebration within Chinese culture and is celebrated by over a billion people in China and neighbouring Asian countries each year. Unlike the Christian New Year, Chinese New Year isn’t on the same date every year and instead corresponds with the lunisolar calendar. It is a time of fresh beginnings and is dedicated to family, culture, history, and traditional festivities. Each year families celebrate with gifts, travel, fireworks, lanterns and symbolic foods. Although these festivities are widely practiced and accepted as part of Chinese culture and tradition, not all are considered environmentally friendly, especially the use of sky lanterns and consumption of shark fins.
Sky lanterns are basically miniature hot air balloons made from thin paper or heat resistant plastic, suspended over a candle or flame by a thin wire or bamboo structure. The heat generated from the flame source heats the trapped air within the lantern allowing it to rise up and float into the sky. These are lit and released in their thousands over the New Year period to symbolise letting go of someone’s past self, previous problems or bad luck, leaving them fresh to start the New Year.
Although picturesque and beautiful, these sky lanterns are an undeniable fire risk to the local environment and community. The source of the flame is supposed to burn out before the lantern returns to the ground, however the mass production and flimsy materials of these lanterns often results in a lantern landing still alight, or even worse, the lantern can catch alight in flight and fall to earth as a hot fireball. Sky lanterns are uncontrollable once in the air, and therefore the potential for these flying fire risks to land or fall onto an area vulnerable to catch fire is unpredictable. Mass environmental and property damage is caused annually by fire lanterns, with figures spiking around dates of the Chinese New Year Celebrations and other Lantern Festivals.
Even if the lanterns work correctly and drift back to land once their flame has been extinguished, they still cause huge amounts of environmental litter and pollution. Those made with a paper canopy often disintegrate within weeks, however those made of plastic will not biodegrade for months or years. They are prone to becoming entangled in plants and pose serious threat of entrapment or suffocation to curious wildlife. If lanterns land in the ocean, this again adds to the amount of dangerous plastic pollution affecting marine wildlife. In addition, the frame used to support the canopy is nearly always metal wire, which does not biodegrade, therefore causing further harm to the environment and danger to wildlife. Even bamboo lanterns, although made from natural materials, still pose a threat of unnatural entanglement to plant and wildlife.
Some companies claim to produce 100% biodegradable sky lanterns to help mitigate the damaging effect on the environment. The removal of metal wire and plastic parts from the lanterns in replace of fire retardant wool and degradable paper is a step in the right direction for lantern celebrations. However, the environmental fire risk still applies, and even though biodegradable, these lanterns still litter and pollute the environment for weeks or even months until they fully degrade.
Unfortunately Shark Fin Soup is a traditional Chinese delicacy associated with prosperity, honour and good fortune, and is typically served at important occasions such as banquets, weddings, and New Year’s celebrations. It is seen as a treasured food symbolizing wealth, and although once reserved for the rich at special occasions, Shark Fin Soup is now commonly consumed in all major Chinese cities by an overwhelming amount of people. This consumption is increased ever more within the Chinese New Year period as families gather to feast and share wealth and honour.
In Chinese, Shark Fin is called Yu Chi which literally translates into English as “fish wing”, and therefore many people do not actually realise the fact that they are eating Shark Fin and contributing to the global depletion of sharks in our oceans. Furthermore, renowned chefs confirm that Shark Fin actually has no flavour or nutritional value, and blind tests have further confirmed Shark Fins can be passably replaced with a sustainable fish or fake fin substitute.
Recent studies estimate around 73 million sharks are caught and killed every year by immoral and unsustainable shark fishing industries specifically for Shark Fin Soup (out of a total of 100 million caught and killed annually). The Shark Fin is the only part of the shark valuable to fishermen, and therefore the captured sharks are de-finned while still alive on the boat, and then discarded into the water to drown. The shark finning industry is primarily to support the market for Shark Fin Soup in mainland China, and demand is known to increase substantially over the Chinese New Year period. In the last 15 years, shark finning has caused the decimation of 90% of shark populations, and 25% of shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction if the killing is not stopped.
Although it is suggested that Chinese public opinion on shark finning is beginning to change, a recent survey found that of 375 popular restaurants in Hong Kong, 98% are still serving Shark Fin Soup and have it advertised on Chinese New Year banquet menus. This leads to the belief that although shark education programmes are having a valuable affect, the large supply and demand of major businesses and prestigious restaurants are still causing the decimation of shark populations in our oceans. It is often argued that Shark Fin Soup is a long standing tradition in Chinese culture, however in reality it has only been widely accessible to all but the wealthy and elite in the last 50 years. For the common majority, this is merely a newly established tradition in an attempt to showcase wealth and power, increasingly around times of family gathering and celebration such as the Chinese New Year.
Celebrate environmentally aware
So please, enjoy the Chinese New Year and celebrate this wonderful and traditional time, but please celebrate responsibly. Think about and understand the environmental impact of your actions and spread the word so others refrain from further damaging our environment and its inhabitants. Chinese New Year has been culturally celebrated for around 3,500 years; let’s preserve and protect our planet so we can continue to celebrate for the next 3,500 years.