Across the world, fireworks are an essential part of New Year's Eve celebrations. Germans especially love setting off their own pyrotechnics, but some places have now imposed limited bans — for good reason.
On a typical German New Year's Eve, friends and family will first chink glasses, and then head out onto the street to set off firecrackers and rockets. Germans are happy to shell out a considerable amount of money on fireworks, too. According to Germany's Pyrotechnic Industry Association, the sector had a €133 million ($148 million) turnover last year.
In Germany, setting off firecrackers and rockets is part of the annual New Year's Eve tradition. And here, unlike in many other countries, it is normal for Germans to stock up on pyrotechnics ahead of the big night.
Germany's laissez-faire approach to pyrotechnics, however, has serious consequences. Fireworks harm the environment, and exploding pyrotechnics can startle and shock animals as well as little children. Moreover, each year, hundreds of revelers are injured through faulty or recklessly used firecrackers. Now, some 30 cities and municipalities in Germany — including Berlin, Hamburg and Munich — have imposed a full or partial ban on private fireworks during New Year's Eve.
For this year's celebrations, the western German city of Aachen has prohibited the use of rockets capable of flying more than 2 meters. City representative Linda Plesch says the move is designed to "protect our historical buildings." In Aachen's city center, the cathedral, half-timbered houses and other historical buildings stand cheek-by-jowel. Plesch says that nine years ago, a rocket caused of fire in an Aachen church, which "seriously damaged the high altar."
Germany may at some stage chose to follow the example of cities like Paris, where revelers on New Year's Eve get to enjoy light and laser shows, but may not set off fireworks themselves. In New York and Sydney, pyrotechnics may not be sold for personal use, either. Americans, meanwhile, tend to have firework displays on July 4, their day of independence, rather than New Year's Eve. The same applies in France, where central firework displays are common on Bastille Day.
A YouGov survey commissioned by RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland — an association of German-language news outlets — found that 75% of German respondents favored a total or partial ban on firecrackers. Some 80% of female respondents said they support limiting or prohibiting the private use of pyrotechnics, while 69% of men backed the idea.
Environmentalists highlight harm of fireworks
Environmental Action Germany (DUH) has now called on Germans to submit petitions to their local municipalities to prohibit the use of private fireworks. Additionally, the nonprofit organization has urged 98 German cities to introduce such a ban.
DUH has calculated that the fireworks sett off on New Year's Eve emit 5 tons of fine particulate matter — a quantity equivalent to 16% of fine particulate emissions resulting from annual car traffic.
Supermarket and DIY chains stop selling pyrotechnics
A number of German supermarkets and DIY store chains have surprisingly announced they will no longer sell pyrotechnics. Hornbach, a well-known hardware store chain, announced it will cease stocking fireworks in 2020.
A range of Rewe and Edeka supermarkets have chosen to stop selling fireworks, too. Some cite environmental reasons, while other says they don't want animals to be disturbed by noisy firecrackers and the like. Yet naturally, this step is risky business-wise. Christoph Windges, who runs a large Edeka supermarket in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, told German news agency dpa that "we will miss out on revenue, and we don't know how our customers will react."
DUH believes a veritable anti-pyrotechnics movement is developing in Germany. But a closer look reveals that the country is still a long way away from scrapping personal fireworks entirely. According to a dpa survey among 53 German cities and municipalities, 23 of them plan to prohibit the use of fireworks in geographically limited areas only. A complete ban has only been imposed along the North Sea, and on the islands of Föhr, Amrum and Sylt. And in August this year the German Association of Towns and Municipalities (DStGB) came out against a blanket ban on all fireworks.
Moreover, cities that have imposed partial bans have not done so for environmental reasons. Linda Plesch says that Aachen found fine particulate matter emissions of fireworks during New Year's Eve to be negligible. The city's ban, in other words, was imposed primarily to protect the city's historic buildings.
Security concerns driving partial bans
Munich's limited ban on fireworks is driven by the city's desire to protect locals from harm. The city has referred to a police assessment according to which locals cannot be certain they "will go though New Year's Eve unscathed." As a consequence, Munich has now ruled out the use of personal pyrotechnics in parts of the historic city center. Elsewhere, however, fireworks are still permitted.
And for now, the majority of German supermarkets and DIY stores will keep selling fireworks, too. As such, Germany's Pyrotechnic Industry Association has no cause for concern, dismissing discussions about a possible fireworks ban as little more than a tempest in a teapot.