Holidays, weddings, and funerals — all events that are practically bursting with tradition. Traditions are important not only because they bridge the gap between the generations, but also because they produce a genuine sense of comfort and belonging in families. However, some of the customs passed from one century to the next have proven to be a bane to our environment. Here are just a few cherished rituals that it may be time to re-evaluate.
Sky lanterns are a well-loved tradition in multiple cultures, and are used around the world to celebrate holidays, make wishes, or mourn the passing of a loved one. They’ve become so popular, in fact, that entire festivals are centered on large groups of people releasing the glowing lanterns into the night sky.
Though they are undoubtedly beautiful, even biodegradable lanterns can be incredibly harmful to both the environment and wildlife. Sky lantern litter takes quite some time to decompose, and the wire frames have been known to strangle and maim wild animals and livestock. They also pose a significant fire hazard. Not only have they caused multiple wildfires, but a sky lantern was also responsible for a massive fire at the Smethwick Recycling Plant in England, as well as a fire that killed 50 animals in the Krefeld Zoo in Germany.
They have been banned in dozens of states as well as several countries — and recently the Isle of Man — yet sky lanterns remain popular throughout the world despite the danger they pose.
Instead of releasing sky lanterns, consider blowing bubbles to make wishes, or floating a few native flowers down a stream to commemorate the deceased or make a wish.
Ah, fireworks, a time-honored method of celebrating … well … just about anything worth celebrating, really. As mesmerizing and gorgeous as they are, fireworks can lead to substantial air pollution problems. As for the refuse that falls to the ground, litter and chemical residue from propellants and colorants can get washed into lakes and rivers by rain. And, of course, there is the ever-present danger of wildfires.
Unfortunately, it’s quite hard to re-create the magic of fireworks with alternative methods, so if you must have them, leave it to the professionals and enjoy a sanctioned fireworks display like those run by local municipalities on Independence Day.
For your personal festivities, instead of painting the sky with explosive chemicals, consider blowing glow-in-the-dark bubbles, attending laser shows, using a light show projector, or projecting particularly luminous fireworks shows past onto the living room wall.
Although the real vs. fake Christmas tree debate still rages every holiday season, when it comes to eco-friendliness, neither is without its drawbacks. Tree farms dole out water and pesticides like Santa does toys. However, real trees soak up carbon dioxide while they’re growing, and when you’re done, they’re 100% biodegradable. Artificial trees can help you avoid killing their live doppelgangers and don’t require any water. However, harmful pollutants are released into the atmosphere during their production, and when all’s said and done, they usually end up in a landfill — where they’ll never biodegrade.
If you have your heart set on the traditional fir, select a Christmas tree from a local farm and recycle it after the holidays. This keeps its carbon footprint low. Better yet, rent a live tree that is safely returned to the nursery after the holidays. And if you’re looking to try something new, consider decorating a potted plant in your home, building your own Christmas tree out of recycled materials, or just forgoing a tree altogether.
Diamond Engagement Rings
Diamond mining has taken an incredibly heavy toll on much of South Africa’s environment, causing widespread soil erosion, deforestation, and death of wildlife. Rivers have been rerouted, once-farmable land has been left devastated and local populations have been forced to relocate. Furthermore, abandoned mining pits fill with stagnant rainwater and host mosquitoes, spreading malaria and other waterborne diseases. And all that’s without even touching the absolute horror of the blood diamond trade.
To avoid the environmental and social evils associated with diamond mining, choose lab-created gems, vintage pieces, or recycled materials instead.
Traditional burials create a whole host of environmental problems. Trees are cut down, transformed into caskets, lacquered and finished, then buried underground — seems like a terrible waste of usable wood. Once the body and casket break down, the chemicals contained in embalming fluids leach into the water table. While a burial vault may prevent this from happening, the vault itself does not decompose, making it environmentally unfriendly. Finally, the grass expanses of modern cemeteries require a lot of water to be kept lush and green — and that’s just a nightmare from a conservation standpoint.
Luckily, there are a number of eco-friendly alternatives to traditional burials, including natural burials, tree cremain urns, having cremains added to a coral reef, or even human composting.
As time marches forward, traditions must as well. Though changing our customs may seem disrespectful to those who came before us, it’s far more important to keep the planet healthy for the survival of future generations. The most important thing about traditions is gathering with loved ones to make memories and share values — and that can easily be done in an environmentally safe manner. Here’s to a future full of sustainable traditions!
Originally published on March 15, 2017, this article was updated in September 2021.