Environmental impact study: polluting in the name of the gods

Are authorities willing to enforce the same strict restrictions on the massive burning of incense and phantom money in shrines and temples as they have with smokers?

  • By Steven Crook / Contributing Journalist

The first Monday of this year was also the first day of the twelfth month of the traditional lunisolar calendar. As they do at the start of each lunar month – and again on the fifteenth day – countless people across Taiwan have placed circular braziers in front of their homes and set themselves on burning bundles of incense paper.

The ritual burning of incense and joss paper (which English speakers sometimes refer to as ghost money, spiritual money, or votive money) is central to religious traditions and ancestor worship. Unfortunately, it has a noticeable detrimental effect on air quality, especially in urban areas.

Since some people start burning incense paper soon after dawn, children on their way to school are among those exposed to high concentrations of particulate matter (PM).

Photo: Steven Crook

The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) website, on a page dated August 18, 2017, points out that burning joss paper produces oxides of sulfur, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and fine particles in suspension, as well as carcinogens such as benzene, formaldehyde, toluene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The same page states that in 2016, Taiwanese burned around 195,000 tonnes of joss paper and 21,000 tonnes of incense. Another estimate is that 280,000 tons of votive money go up in smoke every year. It takes about 24 trees to make one ton of paper. Some joss papers are made from recycled paper, but this can very well produce even more dangerous emissions.

Academia Sinica’s Center for Research on Environmental Change studied the air quality in and around temples. In 2014, he found that on days of significant religious activity, PM10 levels in large temples are 5 to 16 times higher than in a typical townhouse, while houses near temples display levels of increased PM2.5.

Photo: Steven Crook

Scientists from at least three local universities said the air quality in temples was often dangerous for staff and worshipers.

In 2018, EPA staff overseeing the Dajia Matsu pilgrimage in central Taiwan found that PM2.5 concentrations along the road were as high as 1,400 m / m3 (micrograms per cubic meter), due to firecrackers, fireworks, incense and joss paper. This is way beyond what is acceptable for humans. Last year, the WHO set PM2.5 targets of 10 to 35 μm / m3.

Activists are urging an end to the practice of burning incense paper since the time of Japanese colonial rule. Chiang Wei-shui (蔣 渭水), a pioneer of democracy and founder of the Taiwanese Cultural Association, argued that superstition and what he called “ugly customs” should be done away with.

Photo: Steven Crook

Chiang led by example. When her parents died, neither fictitious money nor candles were burned at their funeral. In one of his articles he classified the burning of joss paper as a defect just like the consumption of opium.


The temple lobby in Taiwan is powerful, and (contrary to what some religious leaders suggest) no central or local government unit has proposed to ban burning rituals outright. The authorities have tried various means of reducing the fire and smoke generated by popular religion, without much success.

Photo: Steven Crook

A campaign to get Taiwanese to burn “ghost credit cards” for their ancestors, instead of bundles of counterfeit bills, has clashed with the internal logic of ancestor worship. Like the living, the deceased need money to live comfortably. Some of the early ones have justified their reluctance to change this way: People who died decades ago, and perhaps never attended school, are unlikely to understand or trust cashless payment systems. .

On January 2, the Tainan-based China Daily News reported that a procession the day before, organized by the city’s Shengan Temple (勝 安 宮), created “dense smoke and severe air pollution. “. As a result, the temple would be fined up to NT $ 100,000. (On the same day, another temple in another part of Tainan was fined NT $ 30,000 for a celebration that violated noise limits.)

For many temples in Taiwan, NT $ 100,000 is not a lot of money.

Resistance doesn’t just come from superstitious people who believe disaster will surely follow if they don’t reconcile the gods and ghosts who inhabit other realms.

In 2017, Chen Wei-cheng (陳韋誠) – then a student in the graduate program on ethnicity and culture at National Chiao Tung University – denounced the government’s efforts to curb ritual burns in editorials published by the Think Folklore website (think.folklore. tw).

Chen described official requests that worshipers offer rice instead of sacrificing incense paper (以 米 代金), or replace burning rituals with meritorious acts (以 功 代金 or 以 善 代金), as ” absurd ”. Such approaches, he writes, were “imaginary alternatives, constructed by continually stigmatizing popular beliefs and the use of frankincense and incense paper as pollutants.”

Claiming that rice and joss paper play distinct and non-overlapping roles in sacrifice ceremonies, he asserted that the burning of incense and votive money “is the material basis of Taiwanese folk religion.”

His articles generated dozens of comments, few of which were favorable.

Taiwan’s indigenous community no longer practices headhunting, despite the cultural significance it once had, one person said. Another argued that joss paper is no more irreplaceable than the “divine pigs” who are fattened (often by force, until they can no longer stand) before certain Hakka festivals; this custom, which animal rights activists say is cruel, appears to be in decline.

Faith does not encourage extravagance and waste, said a third. Many expressed confidence that the gods would agree with policies that protect the environment. And one person put it this way, “The gods know what you are doing. Belief is the relationship between the individual and the gods, and it has nothing to do with burning incense paper.

Some temples have shown impressive leadership on environmental issues. Among them is the Puli Confucius temple (埔里 孔子 廟). He ended the incense paper sacrifices in 1961 and persuaded other shrines in the area to follow suit.

Other religious institutions are dragging their feet. Officials sometimes engage in whataboutism, saying the EPA shouldn’t force them to change, because the pollution caused by piles is only a fraction of that produced by factories and motor vehicles in Taiwan.

Small World, a student publication from Shih Hsin University, quoted Chen Yu-feng (陳玉峰), president of Songshan Ciyou Temple in Taipei (松山 慈 祐 宮) on May 11, 2018 as opposed to government efforts to reduce the use of incense and joss paper. .


The removal of censers and joss paper ovens might not matter for famous and wealthy places of worship such as Xingtian Temple (行 天宮) and Mengjia Longshan Temple (艋舺 龍 山寺) in Taipei, a- he declared. In recent years, both temples have chosen to “go green” and end all burning rituals.

However, Chen hinted, it would reduce the number of people attending (and buying joss paper) at smaller shrines, compromising their ability to stay open.

Chen said Ciyou Temple donates environmentally friendly firecrackers to affiliated shrines, while the joss paper and incense now used inside the temple are approved by SGS. He urged the government to help local businesses make frankincense and frankincense paper without the use of harmful chemicals.

Stressing that authorities should not limit religious expression, Chen said temples should make changes on their own. However, the history of many industries shows that simply waiting for people to do the right thing rarely produces ideal results.

A July 5, 2017, China Times article about a rally of temple leaders quoted one as saying “centralized cremation” – the collection of incense paper offerings so that they can be burned in a waste incinerator equipped with pollution control technologies – was “humiliating to believers.”

More and more temples have installed scrubbers in their joss paper ovens. According to Lo Yu-yun (羅玉雲) 2012 doctoral thesis on this type of equipment, dry (bag filter) scrubbers remove up to 99% of particles, while wet scrubbers are about 70% efficient.

Such systems are not prohibitive. Lo said the cost of a dry washer capable of handling 40kg of joss paper per hour is around US $ 10,000. A wet scrubber can cost half that. Operating expenses are not high, but dry scrubbers are rare because they require a lot of floor space.

Joss paper ovens with scrubbers do nothing to reduce popular religion’s carbon emissions. In fact, it’s like adding filters to cigarettes: an excuse not to quit.

Authorities have shown themselves ready to upset Taiwanese smokers with increasingly stringent taxes and restrictions. Will they show the same determination when it comes to the smoke, ash and smell associated with religious traditions?

Steven Crook, author or co-author of four books on Taiwan, has been following environmental issues since arriving in the country in 1991. He drives a hybrid and carries his own chopsticks. The opinions expressed here are his.

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