There is nothing quite like a relaxing bath by candlelight after a stressful day. In North America, we make up the largest proportion (30%, as of 2018) of the global candle market. But as more and more people become aware of the environmental impact of their choices, it raises the question – are candles bad for the environment? This is not a straightforward question to answer, their impact in largely dependent on what the candle is made of.
Firstly, what are candles made of?
In their simplest form, candles contain wax and a wick. The wick, generally, consists of braided cotton or sometimes even wood. It is the job of the wick to provide the flame with fuel to keep it burning.
The wax is a bit more variable in terms of its ingredients! The most common type of wax used in candles is paraffin. This is derived from petroleum and although it comes from a natural source it is not, generally, classed as a natural wax. Natural waxes – such as soy wax, coconut wax and beeswax – are being increasingly used in candle production. This upturn in natural wax use is, at least partly, due to the environmental impact of the fossil fuel industry (of which paraffin wax is a by-product).
Candle production and the environment
The production of paraffin candles, arguably, causes the most environmental impact. Candles made from paraffin wax came from fossil fuels. In addition to being non-renewable, their extraction can cause significant harm to the environment. Soil is degraded, greenhouse gases are emitted and water is polluted – that is before any manufacturing of the candle even takes place!
Soy wax, a popular alternative to paraffin wax, also comes with its own production issues. Soy wax comes from soybeans, a species of legume. After they have been harvested the process begins. The beans are washed, the hulls are removed (dehulling) and they are rolled into flakes. Oil is then extracted from the flakes and hydrogenated to make soy wax.
Soy producers often use chemical pesticides to keep pests at bay and fertilizers to provide better conditions for growth. These can cause issues for soils and local wildlife. Land is also needed to grow the soy and the carbon emissions (associated with transport to the shop shelves) also must be considered.
The impact of candle ingredients on the environment
As mentioned previously, candles are made from more than just wax. The wick also has environmental impacts associated with it. They are typically made from cotton which, although natural, does not come without its costs. Production of cotton requires large amounts of water and tends to involve chemical pesticides and fertilizers, much like soy.
It should also be noted that lead is sometimes used in the candle wick – despite being banned in the US now, lots of candles are imported. When burned, the lead enters the air that we breathe. As well as the health implications, this can impact the environment too. Lead is very persistent and can find its way into all sorts of eco-systems, negatively impacting species as it goes. Candles are, clearly, not the main lead-emitting item out there, but avoid these candles where you can. Check the label for ingredients.
Candle wax often has chemicals added to make the candles smell nice and to add vibrant colors. As well as having the carbon footprint associated with their own production, they can also have a significant impact on the environment. Specifics of this impact depend largely on the chemicals added.
Candles are usually not biodegradable
If an item is said to be ‘biodegradable’ it can break down and return to nature, providing nourishment – rather than just breaking up into smaller pieces and causing harm. Although not the only factor, the ability of an item to biodegrade after disposal is another important factor in its eco-friendliness.
Only natural materials are biodegradable (and potentially fit for composting). Soy wax, beeswax and other natural candle choices can break down naturally. The more common paraffin wax candles are not biodegradable and, as a result, could end up in landfill for many years.
The bottom line
Although they may seem like a fairly harmless household item, candles do have an environmental impact. This is particularly the case with paraffin wax candles which are, unfortunately, the most commonly used. Their originate from fossil fuels and are not biodegradable when thrown away – they also sometimes contain harmful chemicals. You don’t need to stop using candles altogether – opting for a natural alternative, such as soy wax (although not perfect), is the best choice to continue to enjoy candles in a more environmentally friendly way.