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Here's what firework cleanup looks like after the Celebration of Light

When the fireworks finish and English Bay beachgoers head home to their beds, cleanup crews emerge to comb for remains of the Celebration of Light. But what is there to pick up? And where does it all go?

In the middle of English Bay, a gargantuan barge looms amidst some gentle waves, imposing its presence over the comparatively miniature luxury boats and meagre paddle boards.

Aboard, the grounds normally filled with shipping containers are a hive of activity. Workers bake under the intense sun as they weave in and around numerous rows of tinfoil-covered explosives.

To many on shore, this barge is simply the launching pad for a fantastic fizzling display of pyrotechnics during the Celebration of Light. But to those on board, it’s where countless hours of planning and hard work take place.

“Part of our team has spent three days on something that's only going to last 60 seconds,” Warren Zakus of Yukon-based Midnight Sun Fireworks said.

But what happens after those 60 seconds are up?

When the fizzling fun has died down, the hoards of fireworks fans cluttering beaches around English Bay will head home and make space for the cleanup crew, whose work has only just begun.

Kelly Guille, president of Archangel Fireworks, is the fireworks producer and technical director for the Celebration of Light. He also arranges the on-land cleanup that follows the festivities.

After every show, Guille said there’s a team of workers combing nearby beaches for firework debris. Starting with headlamps on, cleanup crews work until the sun rises and the rest of Vancouver rises from its slumber. 

“There's a safety aspect. You want to make sure that nothing washes up [on shore] that’s dangerous,” Guille said. “But that is so seldom.”

For the most part, Guille said cleanup crews are looking for little paper cartridges that have washed up on shore after the fireworks burst out of them only hours before.

“It's mostly just garbage bags in your hand, and you walk along at 5 a.m., whistle or sing a song together and watch the sun come up,” he said.

Cleanup confined to beaches, no water crew

With the removal of aquatic effects — fireworks that break on the water surface — from their fireworks displays, Guille said water cleanup is no longer included in the post-event sweep.

Therefore, anything that lands on the surrounding water either washes up on shore or sinks into the ocean.

“If the paper sinks or dissolves, then there's nothing we can do anyway,” Guille explained.

On Saturday, when Japan opened the festival with their display, Guille said cleanup crews found next to no firework debris on the beaches, due to the wind drifting away from shore.

“If it's windy [away from shore], it's more likely to fall right [on the water] and the cardboard is more likely to just sink,” Guille said. “Rather than if it's windy [towards] shore and the tide is inbound, then you're more likely to get cardboard washing up on the shore.”

Despite some debris sinking into the ocean, Guille said firework cartridges these days — made of layers upon layers of paper and glue — are a huge improvement from the vast amounts of plastic the shells used to be made of.

“There used to be so much plastic and it's gone. It’s just gone,” he said. “You can't convince someone to use plastic.”

What happens to the stuff inside the shell?

For the chemicals contained inside the fireworks, Guille said most are burned up as the firework explodes to create the signature bright colours and don’t pose a threat to the surrounding ocean.

In 2007, one study researched the behaviour of perchlorate — a chemical found in some fireworks — in a municipal lake following a fireworks display. The chemical has been proven to disrupt the uptake of iodide in a human’s thyroid if consumed in excess quantities. 

The study found that it took 20 to 80 days for perchlorate concentrations in the lake to resume normal levels following a fireworks show. The impact of these elevated concentrations on nearby drinking water sources was not studied.

As the owner of a fireworks factory in Mexico, Guille said he does his best to steer away from the perchlorate in the production process.

“Certain effects need perchlorates no matter what until they find another way to make them,” he said. “We've made the choice to steer away from that and just not push those types of effects in our shows.”

A carbon-negative celebration

At the end of the day, fireworks are not the most eco-friendly choice. 

A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology estimated that while so-called environmentally friendly fireworks emit 15 to 65 per cent less particulate matter, there’s still a notable deterioration in air quality after they explode.

However, this hasn’t discouraged industry veteran Guille from trying to minimize the impact of his work.

In October 2021, Guille decided to make Archangel Fireworks a carbon-negative company.

“This was really a no-brainer for us,” Guille said. “I feel good about every show we put in the air, we overcompensate to make sure that we're on the negative side of it and it's great to be able to say.”

Using an environmental effect calculator, Guille will measure his company’s carbon emissions at the end of this fiscal year and determine how many carbon credits he’ll need to purchase to claim a negative output.

Guille has also begun prioritizing co-shipping to help lower his company’s carbon emissions.

Instead of sending pallets of fireworks to shows whenever it’s convenient, he said he strives to compile multiple shipments headed for a similar region into the same truck before sending them off.

“We can save fuel and save time,” Guille said. “Everything like that really adds up at the end of the year, if you can burn 1,000 litres less fuel.”

Video produced by Harry Linley