Image Courtesy of Maison Balzac
A long standing love affair with the candle
Ever since the ancient Egyptians figured out how to dip papyrus wick in animal fat and light it on fire, candles have been part of human society. They have been used to light homes, help people travel at night and in religious ceremonies for over 5000 years. The Chinese Emperor of the Qin Dynasty made them from whale fat over 2000 years ago, around the same time that Alaskans figured out how to make candles from fish.
Beeswax candles rose in popularity in Europe during the middle ages and whale oil candles gained traction in Europe in the 1800s until there were no longer enough whales left in the ocean to keep the industry profitable. As with many common household products, humans eventually figured out a way to replace biodegradable ingredients with a by-product of petroleum.
Enter petroleum based candles
Discovered by chemists in the 1850s, paraffin is a by-product of crude oil - the sludge at the bottom of the barrel that is left after making things like petrol, jet fuel, diesel and road tar. Gross. Paraffin began to be used to make your run-of-the-mill, cheap, blueish-white candles that remain by far the most common form of candle today.
Recent research from South Carolina State University suggests that these hydrocarbon based candles produce large amounts of particulate matter and toxic chemicals like toluene and benzene when burned. In 2004, researchers actually found air pollution levels in a candle-heavy church to be worse than levels next to main roads.
So not only are parafin candles slightly toxic, they are not biodegradable at the end of their life and they are made from a non-renewable resource which is environmentally (and socially) devastating to extract and commoditise. Not generally what one would consider an ‘eco’ product.
If it's ‘natural’ it's eco-friendly right?
Since the nineties, palm oil and soy candles have risen in popularity as cleaner, longer burning alternatives to paraffin, particularly as the scented candle phenomenon took over the western world. They’re made from natural plant-based materials, so that means they’re better for the environment right? Well, it’s not quite that simple as it turns out. It never really is.
The Palm Oil issue
The problem with palm oil is that it’s irresponsible plantation expansion is devastating critical habitat of threatened species, causing social conflict and environmental damage, particularly in Asia where 85% of the oil comes from. Palm oil is now the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. It’s in everything (almost half the packaged foods on supermarket shelves!) and it’s killing Orangutans elephants, tigers and rhino.
In 2004 a body called the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil was set up to try to manage some of the effects of the industry. However when The Economist recently examined the Asian palm oil market in detail they discovered that while the RSPO is a respectable organisation, it has virtually no control over the behaviour of its members and members only have to prove that a percentage of their supply is sustainable.
What about soy?
It’s a similar situation with soy plantations, which put extreme pressure on people and the environment particularly in Latin America . Global production of soybeans is around 324 million tonnes this year, with three-quarters of all produced beans being used for animal and fish feed. The United States, Brazil and Argentina are producing around 80% of the world’s soy. Forest Trends estimates that 50%-70% of soy exports have displaced forests in Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay.
The Round Table on Responsible Soya Association was established by WWF as a group of soy industry kingpins (including Unilever, Monsanto and Carrefour). It’s not without it’s issues and criticism, but it’s making good headway in terms of getting soy products traced to the farms where it’s grown, and making sure rainforests aren’t being cut down or indigenous communities evicted.
How to purchase eco-candles
A great option is to support candle companies which are responsibly sourcing soy from traceable US soy crops, or RTRSA certified plantations. Email the candle company and ask them if they know where their soy was grown (it’s not hard for them to find out). Try companies like Nellie Tier and Melt Candles here in New Zealand, or Maison Balzac in Australia. These guys only purchase their soy from traceable US growers and their candles smell freaking amazing!
In terms of palm oil - due to the untraceable nature and the impacts that non-sustainable palm oil production has on critical habitat for endangered species it’s probably best to steer clear of it all together. If you did want to purchase palm oil candles (or any other palm oil products) try to ensure that it is RSPO certified, at least that way you’ll know that at least part of the oil sold is from a sustainable source.
Beeswax is also a great eco friendly option, the only problem is if you’re into candles that smell good, it’s really hard to scent beeswax (apart from it’s own natural honey scent of course!). Beeswax is also a relatively rare and precious natural raw material so only a small share of the global candle production comes from this product.
Finally - don’t forget to recycle any glass or aluminium that comes with your candles. To get wax out of glass containers use a knife to pry most of it out, then put it in the microwave for about twenty seconds and wipe away any melted wax with a paper towel. Unlike paraffin, soy is biodegradable and non-toxic so it can go in the compost when you’re done.
We've got a giveaway coming up later this week of one of each new fragrances from Nellie Tier so watch out for our Facebook post.