Fireworks: Ungreen Or A Necessary Part Of Ringing In The New Year?

Image Source: "Mr Magoo ICU"

Dear Pablo: What is the environmental impact of fireworks? It seems like it must create a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.

That is a very popular question around the 4th of July and New Year's Eve. In fact I have answered this question before. The following answer originally appeared on Salon.com in June of 2008.

Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, estimates that 18,000 fireworks shows occur across the nation on July 4 alone. Totals for New Year's Eve are probably similar, although budget cuts in light of the current economic depression may have scaled back the quantity and scale of fireworks shows this year. According to the National Council on Fireworks Safety, the United States consumed about 272.1 million pounds of fireworks in 2006, of which only about 9.5 percent are commercial fireworks shows. The remaining "consumer fireworks" are sold in roadside shacks and used to celebrate events and perform Darwin's work.

Fireworks are propelled by black powder (aka gunpowder). This substance consists of an oxidizer (potassium nitrate), a fuel (carbon), and an accelerant (sulfur). For every 270 grams of black powder used, 132 grams of carbon dioxide are created, the rest of it turning into potassium sulfide and nitrogen. Unlike gasoline, black powder already contains an oxidizer so that the combustion results in less CO2 created than the starting weight of the substance. Gasoline releases roughly 20 pounds of CO2 per gallon when combusted because it combines the carbon in the fuel with oxygen from the atmosphere.

The standard unit for measuring greenhouse gas emissions is metric tons, so I will convert the 2006 volume of fireworks consumed in the U.S.: 123,422.5 metric tons. Since 270 grams of black powder create 132 grams of carbon dioxide, we can multiply that ratio (132/270 = 0.4889) by the volume of fireworks to get annual U.S. emissions from fireworks: 60,340 tons. This is more than 12,000 cars emit in a year, or the emissions from 115,000 light bulbs left burning for a year!

Compounds used to create dazzling colors and effects may contain heavy metals or other toxins that contribute to existing industrial contamination in our water and soil. Additionally, sulfur-laden gases and particulate matter may seriously affect asthmatics and sufferers of lung diseases. So, should you shun the public fireworks display in favor of your own backyard fireworks bonanza? Not so quick.

Consumer fireworks contain many of the same ingredients as their commercial cousins and leave behind biodegradable cardboard residue as well as plastic fragments. Consumer fireworks cause numerous injuries each year, especially in the hands of unsupervised children. Unlike commercial fireworks, which are heavily supervised by fire departments, consumer fireworks have a greater potential to spark wildfires, of which we in California have had enough of for a while.

So what's a good Ney Year's Eve reveler to do? You could seek out a laser show, which is likely to be choreographed to music (think Pink Floyd) more spectacularly than your hometown fireworks display. Sure, you will miss the diaphragm-pounding explosions and the tickle of sulfur in your lungs while you stand outside in the cold with coughing strangers, but at least you will be doing the climate a favor.

Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com, an experienced greenhouse gas engineer and the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.
More Fireworks Articles:
Green Fireworks Come In All Colors
Fireworks: The Annual Whine About Their Environmental Impact
Oh No Mommy! Will The Greenies Take Fireworks Away From Us?

Tags: Carbon Dioxide

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