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Last Updated: 02/13/2012Beyond Tradition: Welcoming the New Year and the Environment
James Lovelock, author of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, smartly points out that, “for each of our actions there are only consequences”. While we understand this concept at face value, rarely do we stop to consider the multifaceted impacts of our actions. Reflecting on the manufacturing, transportation, combustion and solid waste associated with fireworks celebrations, Stephanie Weiss challenges us to consider the following: What kind of consequence does welcoming the New Year with fireworks have on our environment?
It’s almost twelve; time for the most important minute of the year. If you weren’t already aware it was New Year’s Eve, you wouldn’t have noticed anything different in the town of Bluefields, Nicaragua. Everything was quiet until a few seconds into 2012, and then, all of a sudden, the slumbering town woke up. You didn’t have to go outside to be part of the celebration; this celebration needed no gathering. The invitation to be part of the extravaganza was simple – fireworks. Random flashes reflecting red, yellow, blue; dazzling patterns in the black sky.
Hugs, wishes for a better and brighter New Year, and then smoke. No matter which direction you looked, eyes were amused witnesses, ears were attentive and noses aware of the unusual smell in the air.
While this more humble New Year’s celebration cannot be compared with the largest fireworks display ever recorded (66,326 fireworks achieved by Macedo's Pirotecnia in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal on December 31, 2006), can this ‘beauty’ invite us to reflect on some of the effects that our traditions and celebrations have on the environment?
First, let’s look at a basic firework’s lifecycle: manufacturing, transportation, combustion and trash. The raw materials used to manufacture fireworks are mainly minerals; mining is one of the activities with the largest environmental impact in the world, including erosion, sedimentation, heavy metal contamination and leaching, acid rock drainage, among others. In India, 90 percent of all fireworks are produced in Sivakasi, with 564 manufacturing units, contributing to the direct employment of close to 100,000 people. Allegations have been made against the use of child labour, and 14 people died in accidents in 2010, down from 23 in 2009.
When we talk about transportation, we need to consider, in a very simplistic analysis, assembly facilities, distribution centers and stores, and of course, the driving to the store.
In combustion, there is an illusion of simplicity; colours seem very basic. But the next time you see green, for example, know that it’s made with Barium Chloride, fuel, oxidizer, binder (to hold pellets together) and chlorine donor (to strengthen the color of the flame). And the smoke may contain a mixture of sulfur-coal compounds, traces of heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals or gases. The combustion cloud can contain harmful fumes such as ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide.
The level at which the smoke is released also matters; if released at a low level it has a much higher inhalation probability compared to professional displays. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the principal greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere because of human activities are: Carbon Dioxide (CO2): Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O), and Fluorinated Gases, among others. When it comes to fireworks, we need to be concerned about the greenhouse gases that fireworks produce, which include Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and ozone. Fireworks also scare, disorient and kill animals, especially birds.
Furthermore, what happens when the show is over? We might call it trash, or just the inevitable side effect of a memorable celebration. January 1st brings abandoned streets and rain gutters as passageways for the undeniable evidence of the celebration’s negative impact on the environment.
The Earth is left to figure out what to do with such waste. If the rain comes, as it did in Bluefield, the streets can clean themselves, leaving the nearest coastline to bear the burden.
Ireland, Chile, Canada, USA and Australia are some of the countries that have laws in place to control and/or ban firework use. Without any doubt, Nicaragua, Bolivia and many others do not have fireworks-related legislation in place. Adequate regulation and control should be established for the commercialization of the product, its use and safety. Japan is already working on fireworks technology that generates almost no smoke; so improvements are finally beginning.
Consumers have the power to transform companies and policies. Let us be always open to reflect on the effects of our actions. May each of us create new traditions with greater consideration for the effects of our actions and the environment, so that small communities like Bluefield may truly enjoy a better New Year.
 Safe Drinking Water Foundation http://www.safewater.org/PDFS/resourcesknowthefacts/Mining+and+Water+Pollution.pdf
 Diwali: Remembering Sivakasi where fire crackers are made. R. Chandrasekaran. http://www.globalindianewswire.com./index.php/20111020286/Features/Business/sivakasi-indias-pyrotechnic-capital.html
Stephanie Weiss is an Environmental Engineer from Bolivia and a University for Peace Masters Candidate in Environmental Security and Peace, specializing in Climate Change. You can reach her by email at email@example.com or read her blog here: http://greenpinguin.blogspot.com/