Hungry Ghost Festival – Part 3: Solutions

Previously, I mentioned how the Hungry Ghost Festival has an impact on our air quality and general hygiene. In this post, I will discuss the measures that have been or can be taken to mitigate these impacts.

A netizen’s suggestion to move with the times.

Comment extracted from here

Joss paper burning

In some residential areas, the burning bins provided have large holes that cause ash to be blown away easily.

The open-air design of these bins means pollutants are easily carried away by the wind.

Image courtesy of Imgur

In 2014, the government introduced eco-friendly joss paper burning bins with an improved closed top design, which prevents ash from flying out (The Straits Times, 2015). Air vents in the bin allow better airflow to facilitate complete combustions, reducing the amount of smoke and pollutants emitted (Science Learning Hub, 2009).

Left: Improved closed-top bin, Right: Old open-top bin

Currently, all three types of bins are still in use, but I think the government should replace all open-top bins with the improved closed-top ones given its effectiveness in reducing the spread of ash and smoke. Although these improved bins are more expensive, they are definitely a worthwhile investment for better air and health.

Joss Sticks

With regards to joss sticks, more research can be done to explore alternative methods to manufacture incense such that the byproducts from burning it are less harmful. For example, a study found that the use of oyster shells in producing incense can reduce particulate matter emission (Yang C.R. et al, 2012). The calcium carbonate content in oyster shells is resistant to burning, hence facilitating the effective burning of the other components in the incense (Yang C.R. et al, 2012).

Food offerings

After my last post on how food offerings can attract birds and rats, my friend Wan Teng shared on how her grandmother started to bring food offerings home in recent years to not waste food. This unconventional practice (Clarke, 2018) shows that there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to traditional rituals as mindsets and practices can change with time.

While it may be difficult to convince people to consume their offerings, a regulation can be put in place to mandate that individuals remove these food offerings once they are done with the rituals. This would retain the core of the rituals while solving the problems of hygiene. I’m sure the spirits will understand – because who wants to share their food with birds?

These are my thoughts on how we can mitigate the environmental problems from the Hungry Ghost Festival. If you have other suggestions, do share them with me in the comments section below.

With that, we have come to the end of the Hungry Ghost Festival series. While the Hungry Ghost Festival is more sombre than celebratory, I decided to discuss it as its impacts are very relatable to Singaporeans. Next week, I will move on to happy celebrations proper!



The Straits Times (Sep 6, 2015). Eco incense paper burners prove popular

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Science Learning Hub (Nov 19, 2009). What is smoke?

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Yang C.R., Ko T.H., Lin Y.C. Lee S.Z., Chang Y.F., Hsueh H.T. (Jul 28, 2012). Oyster shell reduces PAHs and particulate matter from incense burning

Retrieved from:

Clarke, B. (Aug 3, 2018). A guide to the Hungry Ghost Festival: Don’t let the spirits catch you off guard this season

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5 thoughts on “Hungry Ghost Festival – Part 3: Solutions

  1. e0310514

    Hi Si Hui,

    I think that the topic you have chosen (Hungry Ghost Festival) is rather touchy. To me, it seems like a be damned if you do, be damned if you don’t situation. I can understand how people get offended if anything less than the “good stuff’ gets offered to the ghosts out of respect or fear. As such, I think it is difficult to solve this problem unless there is a decrease in people who “celebrate” the festival. While it is good that changes are being done to reduce the impacts of such festivals, such as the closed-top bins, are deeply rooted traditions such as this easily changed? Unfortunately, religion is too touchy a topic to have a fruitful discussion, which means that such problems will continue to persist. What I hope is for concessions to be made between environmentalists and the respective head of religions or the IRO (since they should have more credibility and say) and hopefully change the products of religious actions without eroding its core value (i.e. the burning of a environmentally-friendly joss stick not coinciding with any forms of disrespect to the diety or causing a fundamental shift in the practise itself). What are you’re thoughts on this issue?

    Lee Yang

    1. Si Hui Post author

      Hi Lee Yang,

      Thank you for sharing your opinion!

      I agree that this is a culturally sensitive issue and these traditional practices are here to stay. While we are unable to change the practices, what we can do is to mitigate the effects of burning joss paper and joss sticks by controlling the spread of ash and using environmentally friendly joss sticks, for example.

      Currently, many joss sticks like the ones in my house are labeled to be eco-friendly and produce less smoke. However, it is unclear whether these joss sticks are indeed better for the environment as there is no information on the exact materials that were used to manufacture the joss sticks. Hence, I think it may be a good idea for environmentalists and Buddhist institutions to work together in researching and developing a brand of environmentally-friendly joss sticks. This would certainly lend credibility to the eco-friendly element of the joss stick and encourage devotees to switch to this alternative.

      Si Hui

    2. Joanna L Coleman

      Hey Lee Yang,

      This is a GREAT comment. I really appreciate it. And you express what many people undoubtedly feel.

      However, is it true that “religion is too touchy to have a fruitful discussion” ? Let me explain using a different, sensitive issue.

      Female genital mutilation is practiced in many countries as a religious or cultural rite. It’s a violation of a girl’s or woman’s body – one that can permanently wreck her sex life or worse. Thankfully, the incidence (at least in E Africa) has declined drastically according to a study published last week. And the decreased incidence is the result of interventions, i.e., a fruitful discussion took place, challenging the dogma.

      If we don’t stand up and speak out against practices that are damaging, whether to human rights or the environment, just because said practices are done in the name of religion / culture, well… doesn’t that legitimise almost anything as long as it’s being done for such reasons ?

      Of course, as always, this is just my opinion – it may not be yours.

      1. e0310514

        Hi Dr Coleman,

        I certainly agree with you that just because it is touch doesn’t mean that it should not be discussed. In fact, I personally think that such sensitivity is a sign of weakness, a “hole” in the armour that religious people try to hide and cover. Based on my personal experience, it seems that those who are more religious are merely religious (although obviously). They are more than happy to be environmentally-friendly if it does not go against their religion (like changing to metal straws, use less disposables for example). However, for the case Si Hui presented, being joss paper, these 2 realms are not in alignment. To not burn joss paper (to save the environment) goes against their religion. In this case, my experience makes me belief that these people would choose religion (even if it ironically goes against the teachings). One would need to be careful in discussions as a wrong step would put religious people on the defensive, making any form of constructive discussions impossible.

        Lee Yang

        1. Joanna Coleman

          Great reply, Lee Yang.

          Not sure if you read any of Afiq’s blog, but I found it quite interesting the way he was deeply questioning the sustainability of various religious practices.

          I also totally agree that religion is an area in which we have to tread lightly, especially as scientists – after all, religion isn’t fact-based, it’s spiritual.

          I once had a really challenging experience, working at a science (microbiology / biotech) museum, where I ran the group visits & summer science camps. This mother & daughter came in for a guided tour. Right from the start, the mum told me her daughter was home-schooled and that they were creationists, so not to talk about evolution or the age of the Earth. The funny thing was that our exhibit started with a section on that very subject and the evolution of extremophiles. Probably the most difficult tour I ever gave. But I digress…


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