With two days until Bonfire Night, have you cemented your plans for the evening? Will you be nervously lighting sparklers in your back garden? Attending a display in your nearest, inevitably freezing cold park? Cuddling your terrified dogs in the living room with all the curtains closed? Here’s one more thing to consider as you finalise your plans: is Bonfire Night bad for the environment?
Most of us have a hazy memory of a terrifying fireworks safety lesson in primary school, and are subsequently hyper-vigilant about wearing gloves with sparklers and checking bonfires for hedgehogs. But it turns out the damage caused by Fireworks Night can run a lot deeper than a singed fingertip or two; in fact, it’s often termed “the most polluted evening of the year,” according to the Guardian.
Firstly, there’s the issue of what, exactly, you’re putting on your bonfire. According to the BBC, some are dumping “noxious material” onto their fires, which can release dangerous fumes. The government’s Environment Agency warns against burning household waste, noting that it’s illegal to burn “treated wood, tyres, plastics, rubber, and oil,” as well as glass and metal — all of which can cause harmful pollution when burned. Your bonfire should only contain “untreated wood, branches, and small amounts of leaves, cardboard, and paper”; what’s more, you should keep it secure to ensure no one dumps their rubbish on it without your knowledge.
And, of course, there’s the issue of hedgehogs and other animals hiding in bonfires, risking a truly horrible fate. To avoid this, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society recommends building your bonfire on the day you plan to light it; if that’s not possible, fence off the bottom with outward-leaning chicken wire that stands at least a metre high (did you know hedgehogs are apparently excellent climbers? I did not, until today.) If you leave your bonfire unattended at any time, the charity says, you should check that wildlife, pets, or even small children (what kind of Wicker Man nightmare is this?) haven’t crawled into it by “gently lifting the bonfire section by section with a pole or broom.” Hear a hissing sound? That’s a sign of a secreted (and irritated) hedgehog.
What about the fireworks? According to the Guardian, the smoke emitted by fireworks can include lead, antimony, titanium, potassium, aluminium, and toxic organic compounds — many of which are pollutants filtered from industry chimneys. In 2014, the extreme level of pollution after Bonfire Night prompted the government to warn people that they should minimise outdoor physical activities, the newspaper reported.
Some fireworks are less harmful than others, the Independent says. If you’re hosting your own display, go for white fireworks, which don’t contain as many polluting chemicals. Choosing fireworks that go off closer to the ground — Catherine wheels, for instance — will make it easier for you to find and safely dispose of all debris. And if you’re lighting sky lanterns? Make sure you buy the biodegradable variety, as standard models contain wire which can trap animals and otherwise injure them.
No need, then, to cancel your Bonfire Night celebrations out of concern for the environment — there’s plenty of ways to keep your evening eco-friendly. Keep your bonfires clean, your fireworks safe — and please, spare a thought for the hedgehogs.