New ‘clean burning’ joss paper claims to reduce air pollution at Chinese religious festivals

The ‘Eco Hell note’ claims to burn faster and with less smoke than traditional joss paper, reducing the air pollution that affects Singaporean neighbourhoods during around Chinese religious festivals. But is it just a gimmick?

Eco hell note
The Eco Hell note burns quicker, with less smoke and no ash. It is made from nitrocellulose, a highly flammable material that is a key ingredient in modern gunpowder. Image: Mullen Lowe

An advertising agency and a local Chinese religious goods merchant claim to have developed a new type of joss paper that reduces the environmental impact of traditional paper burning at Chinese religious festivals in Singapore.

The “Eco Hell note” burns quickly without producing ash, offering an “environmentally-friendly alternative” to burning joss paper, according to a press release from ad agency Mullen Lowe.

The new joss paper is made from nitrocellulose, a highly flammable compound formed by treating cellulose with a mixture of nitric acid and sulphuric acid. It is the main ingredient in modern gunpowder. 

The Eco Hell note launches in the run-up to the Qingming Festival, when traditionally paper is burned to honour dead relatives. The practice often raises complaints about smoke and air pollution in neighbourhoods around the city-state.

The new paper money was designed and developed by Mullen Lowe for local joss paper wholesaler Ban Kah Hiang Trading, one of the oldest Chinese religious goods merchants in Singapore, under the startup name Base Genesis.

Mullen Lowe could not provide data on the relative emissions of the Eco Hell note versus traditional paper, but said that because nitrocellulose-based paper produces no ash and minimal residue, it has a smaller environmental footprint.

Speaking to Eco-Business on Wednesday, Alex Teo, owner of Ban Kah Hiang Trading, said the nitrocellulose-based note was a “trial” to test if the market would accept the product. 

Air pollution solution or marketing gimmick?

In response to questions from Eco-Business about the viability of the reduced-smoke paper, Mullen Lowe said that the Eco Hell Note is “available for pre-orders”, with a roll-out of the product slated for this year’s Hungry Ghost Festival in August.

Daniel Kass, senior vice president of environmental, climate and urban health for air quality non-profit Vital Strategies, said that while the nitrocellulose paper, also known as flash paper, does not create particulate pollution in the way that normal paper does, it does burn very hot and very rapidly – which could pose safety risks.

Most flash paper is used in magic tricks and is small. It burns quick enough to have a low risk of setting anything else on fire. A large piece of paper, as is the case with this product, could ignite neighbouring objects if not careful,” he said.

I would worry about facial and scalp hair catching on fire, and I would be doubly concerned about it being ignited in the presence of other flammables, including things like hair spray residue (which is flammable) or in the presence of any other ignition sources. I would also want to make sure it isn’t being used indoors,” he added.

This type of joss paper would need to be stored in air-tight containers in a moist environment to prevent the possibility of inadvertent or spontaneous combustion from heat sources, Kass said.

Mullen Lowe told Eco-Business that while a safety permit is not required to burn the Eco Hell Note, it should only be burned in designated areas to ensure “responsible joss paper burning”.

Questions hang over the involvement of an ad agency to develop the product. Agencies have previously been criticised for creating one-off gimmicks to purportedly solve social and environmental issues in order to win creative awards. 

A classic example of this was an app created by a Singapore ad agency that claimed to be able to find refugees stranded in the Mediterranean Sea. The app, which won an award at Cannes, the advertising industry’s top awards show, turned out to be a fake.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →