You may have fond memories of running around the backyard with sparklers as a kid over the 4th of July, or oohing and aahing at their fleeting beauty in the night sky on New Year's Eve. But as pretty and fun as they may be, are fireworks bad for the environment?
There's no better time than now to dive into the environmental impact of fireworks. Because while lighting off fireworks is a tradition for many, they're not exactly the most eco-friendly source of entertainment.
Are Fireworks Bad for the Environment?
It probably comes as no surprise that blowing something up into the air has a negative impact on the environment. Even with their ephemeral nature, fireworks cause a lot of air pollution in a very short amount of time.
Let's start with the pretty colors fireworks unleash into the sky. First of all, those colors come from different chemical compounds: Lithium salts produce pink and sodium salts produce yellow, for example. A scientist told Forbes that when the fireworks go off, the metal salts and explosives undergo a chemical reaction that releases smoke and gases into the air. That includes carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen—three greenhouse gases that are unfortunately responsible for climate change.
"During the explosion, these metal salts do not 'burn up.' They are still metal atoms, and many of them end up as aerosols that poison the air, the water, and the soil," writes GrrlScientist. "When inhaled or ingested, these metals can cause a huge variety of short- and long-term reactions, ranging from vomiting, diarrhea or asthma attacks, to kidney disease, cardiotoxic effects, and a variety of cancers."
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has documented higher concentrations of fine particulate matter (also called particle pollution), as well as co-pollutants (like trace metals and water-soluble ions) due to firework displays on celebratory occasions.
Primarily, that involves particle matter less than 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), those particle pollutants pose the greatest risk to health, as they're more easily able to get into your lungs and bloodstream.
Here's the kicker. During—and even several days prior to or after—national holidays and festivals, those daily PM2.5 concentrations have been "2 to 10 times greater than background levels." Those levels were especially elevated on July 4th and 5th, harming both the planet and people.
Not only does lighting off fireworks cause a lot of air pollution, but they even hurt the environment when they go unused. According to the EPA, the U.S. generates "tons of waste energetics in the form of commercial and consumer fireworks that are unused, damaged, fail to function, or some other reason that causes them to become a waste."
What About Sparklers?
Sparklers—aka hand-held fireworks—are definitely smaller than typical firework displays you see. But, they still aren't good for the planet. Sparklers involve an iron rod, an oxidizer to produce the color, a fuel that keeps the sparkler burning, and a binder to hold everything together.
While sparklers are easy to set off, they're not easy to recycle. In fact, you can't recycle them at all. They also emit a lot of the same toxins and pollutants that fireworks set off. So while they're fun and part of many people's 4th of July festivities, it's better to find new traditions instead.
Are There Eco-Friendly Fireworks?
There are some firework options that cause less harm to the environment than their traditional counterparts. According to an article by Environmental Science and Technology, more eco-conscious alternatives include options with smokeless charges and sulfur-free propellants.
While these eco-friendly fireworks emit 15 to 65% less particulate matter than traditional fireworks, they're not a completely eco-friendly swap.
"Our results indicate that environmentally-friendly fireworks aren't actually 'green,'" wrote the study authors. Right now, they still significantly deteriorate air quality. "To make them green, the total number of fireworks used at one time must be strictly restricted."
As you can see, there's no completely planet-friendly way to enjoy fireworks. Here are some alternatives to consider.
Alternatives to Lighting Fireworks
1. Go to a Public Fireworks Display
If you're still keen on watching some fireworks, enjoy a public display in your community from a safe distance instead of lighting them up yourself. Or, watch them on TV. That way, you won't be contributing to any more pollution or waste than what's already happening.
2. Host an Eco-Friendly BBQ
Nothing beats gathering a group of friends and family and enjoying each other's company as your food sizzles on the grill. Bust out your reusable plates and utensils, have some delicious vegetarian grill recipes, and hit the backyard or the beach for an evening of good food and fun without the fireworks.
3. Enjoy a Cozy Fire
If you want to have a cozy fire sans pollution, try the Java-Log. It's made from recycled coffee grounds and burns cleaner than typical logs, producing up to 80% less carbon monoxide.