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Unique Firework Alternatives for a Sustainable July 4th

by Suzanne Wentley

picture of a woman at night on the beach playing with glow in the dark poi balls

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Magnificent fireworks displays, the kind that light up my wide eyes with the night sky, were always such a treat — until I started to really think about it.

My feelings about Independence Day fireworks started to get complicated around the time of the Gulf War in the early 1990s. As a teenage girl, I watched the green-hued TV footage of the war in Iraq and vowed to be a pacifist. The whole “bombs bursting in air” thing hit a little too hard.

But I grew up and learned to detach from the symbolism and remember that as Americans, we should be proud of our hard-earned freedom. I returned to summers of sucking sweet watermelon slices and oooo-ing and ahhhh-ing along with a beautiful fireworks display.

Until, of course, I started thinking again. What about the environmental impact?

Like climate change, the environmental impact of fireworks is an inconvenient truth. In the name of a good national celebration, we push aside the reality so we can just have a little fun on a rare day off work. But there are alternatives available that can help you and your family celebrate the nation and the Earth.

What’s the Problem with Fireworks?

Maybe it’s obvious, but fireworks are pollution. All those pretty colors that explode in the sky are made by chemical reactions of metallic compounds including barium and aluminum. As someone who won’t even use deodorant with aluminum, it’s pretty wild to think that I happily expose myself to these neurotoxins for fun every year.

After all, aluminum exposure has been linked in numerous scientific studies with Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, and other serious illness. There aren’t studies on its impacts on wildlife, but I imagine it’s not great.

Then there’s the stuff that makes them go boom. Most fireworks use chemical compounds called perchlorates as an oxidizer needed for an explosion. Perchlorate exposure somehow stops the thyroid gland from using iodine, which is crucial for the development of children and healthy metabolic and mental functions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t worry about it being in our drinking water, but I do. Those fireworks fall to the ground and often directly over waterways. Where do you think it goes but in our bodies?

Plus, we’ve all seen those huge plumes of smoke that linger in the air after a good fireworks display. I don’t mean to be a bummer here, but that’s just straight-up air pollution. We can do better.

Ideas for Firework Alternatives

Creativity is key when it comes to celebrating our freedoms while also caring about the Earth and the health of its residents. I hope this list will serve as inspiration to do something different this year so we can all work together to be the best Americans we can be.

Laser Light Shows

In the Black Hills of South Dakota, every night the Native Americans overseeing the massive Crazy Horse monument put on a laser light show that should be on everyone’s bucket list. They project moving horses and waving flags on the monument, adding fog into the air to create a display that is both patriotic and mindful of the environment.

At music festivals, I’ve seen epic laser displays from the stage that shoot into the crowd. Lasers jump down into our eyes and up into the clouds, dancing in nearby trees in a dizzying display of colors and patterns.

Why can’t this happen for the Fourth of July, too? Fireworks are basically just playing with lights and sounds. Today’s digital software can make laser light shows even more spectacular. And best of all, they’re less likely to get rained out.

Big Bubbles Poppin’ O’er Head

In case you live in a cave, I’m here to tell you: Kids absolutely adore bubbles of all kinds. Big or little bubbles, it doesn’t matter. Kids will jump around, trying to pop them and watching with wonder at how they distort shapes and colors as they rise above reach. When bubbles are really big, they can get big kids excited too.

a woman of color on the beach playing with a bubble wand

I encourage you to make a giant bubble wand for this Fourth of July. According to Scientific American, you’ll need:

  • 2 dowel rods

  • 2 screw eyes

  • About 18 feet of baker’s twine

  • 2 washers

  • Bucket

  • Bubble solution

That bubble solution, by the way, is a mixture of water, liquid dish soap, glycerin, and baking powder. Mix it up. build your wand and see how impressive your display will be to both children and adults alike.

Want to make your bubbles glow? Crack open a highlighter or a glow stick and add it to your bubble mixture. This isn’t the most environmentally conscious option, but it’s way better than blasting pollution into the air and water.

Sky Lanterns

If you really want to look up into the night sky as part of your Independence Day celebration, get a pack of paper sky lanterns instead of fireworks. These pretty lanterns are made of biodegradable paper, which disintegrates over time. You light a small luminary and watch as they float away.

a late evening launch of sky lanterns

It’s true that these beautiful lanterns originate from Asia, but guess what: so do thousands of American families. There’s no reason why we can’t adopt a practice that is much better for the environment and honors the melting pot of traditions that make America so great.

Seed Crackers

Now these are awesome! In India, they have a similar celebration of fireworks for Diwali — and environmentalists struggle over there, too. So, they’ve come up with an alternative to firecrackers called seed crackers.

Made with recyclable materials, these crackers are made with living seeds instead of polluting chemicals. Pop these open and watch your garden grow with microgreens and other edible wonders all summer long.

Glow-in-the-Dark Poi

Fireworks are so popular because they light up the night. But with a little practice, you can too. I have a group of friends who spin poi, which are flow toys made from battery-operated balls at the end of a rope. Once you get the hang of it, they’re easy and fun to spin around in interesting and mesmerizing patterns.

Of course, my friends don’t stop there. They graduate to fire poi, which replace the glowing balls with balls of fire. Some friends have glow-in-the-dark hula hoops or fire hoops. Some twirl flaming staffs overhead and around their backs.

If you don’t want to invest in the time it takes to master this art, you can always hire someone who has. This is a memorable way to cap off an Independence Day BBQ bash without hurting the environment.

Kissing Someone You Love

Um, hello! Let’s talk about the kind of fireworks that are really exciting … the kind that come when you kiss someone you love and who loves you. You certainly don’t have to wait until the July 4th holiday for this!

What’s more, a good, old-fashioned smooch celebrates what is best about America: our relationships, our connections, and our families. My teenage self wasn’t wrong when bombs made me upset. As Americans, we don’t need to prove our military might as part of our national celebrations. Instead, we can celebrate the safety of the people we love.

Gratitude is embedded in our Independence Day, and that makes it a truly special holiday. But there’s no reason to forget about the environmental damage our celebrations can bring.



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