Versus: Candles

G Magazine

Parrafin Vs soy Vs palm oil Vs beeswax candles.


Credit: iStockphoto

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Is there anything more indulgent than a candlelit dinner with your special someone or relaxing in a warm bath surrounded by the glow of tealights? In the semi-awake state induced by low lighting, candles help us to chill out and leave the stresses of the day behind.

But flipping the electric switch off for some old-fashioned mood lighting isn’t as straightforward as you might think. There’s paraffin wax, sox wax, palm wax and beeswax to choose from, not to mention an array of scents, shapes and sizes. In environmental terms, candles seem deceptively pure. However, behind the light lie some surprising eco-truths.

First there was light

Used to make tealight, scented, birthday and church candles, paraffin candles account for 90 per cent of all candle sales because of cheap production costs and the wax’s stable burning properties. Unfortunately, paraffin generates a giant-sized eco-footprint. Derived from crude oil – the same non-renewable fossil fuel found in petrol, plastics and asphalt – the hydrocarbons within this wax were originally trapped deep underground in oil deposits.

To transform oil into those sweet-smelling candles in your bathroom, the manufacturing process involves dioxin bleaching and the addition of plasticisers, colours and fragrances – all of which create greenhouse gas emissions.

In our search for sustainable alternatives, the past decade has seen a huge increase in new candle waxes for the first time in over a century, with renewable agricultural-based materials such as soy leading the way.

Soy wax is a biodegradable vegetable wax made from the oil of soy beans. The oil is hydrogenated to solidify the wax at room temperature, with about 60 kg of soy beans required to produce 10 kg of soy bean oil.

The main producers of soy are the United States, Brazil and Argentina. According to US industry body, the
United Soy Board, soy bean yield increased by 12 per cent from 2004-2007 and the 3.36 billion bushels of soy beans grown in the United States last year removed the carbon equivalent of taking 21 million cars off the road.

However, there are concerns over the pressure soy bean production places on our rainforests. Brazil’s cultivated soy bean area has nearly doubled in recent years, rising from 11.7 million hectares in 1994 to 21.0 million in 2003. Deforestation is set to continue in the Amazon to keep up with our healthy appetite for soy beans, which rose by 70 million tonnes (52 per cent) during the same decade.

Still in the tropics, palm wax is touted as another eco-friendly alternative to paraffin, but its production also contributes to deforestation. Palm wax is derived from palm oil, which is found in about 50 per cent of all packaged supermarket products. Indonesia and Malaysia produce 85 per cent of the world’s palm oil, which in 2009 equated to approximately 32 million tonnes.

According to the WWF, “palm oil cultivation, particularly by large companies, is responsible for increased fire, pollution, use of chemical pesticides, clear cutting of tropical hardwoods, biodiversity loss, and thus habitat destruction for several endangered species including the orangutan, tiger and elephant.”

There has been some progress, including the introduction of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) in 2009, but often the only way to find out if the palm oil used in a product is certified is to call the manufacturer and ask.

Beeswax candles are made from natural wax produced by honey bees to build honeycomb cells for storing honey and pollen. Harvesting beeswax causes little harm to the bees or the environment and the wax can be sourced from local bee-keepers. However, it’s considerably more expensive than other waxes due to the small scale of production.

A burning desire

Measuring the performance of a candle is twofold: for how long does it burn and how cleanly? A 2002 study by
Iowa State University in the US that compared the burning rates of three candle waxes found hardy beeswax to burn the longest, followed by trimmed soy wax (trimming the wick as the candle burns to reduce flame size), untrimmed soy wax and paraffin. Palm wax candles are also said to burn for longer than those made with paraffin.

And when it comes to cleanliness, the result is much the same. When candles made from paraffin are burnt, the carbon they contain is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. About 10.7 g of CO2 is released by a paraffin candle lit for one hour.

Wax derived from renewable plant resources doesn’t have the same environmental impact when burnt. It’s also important to note the effect burning candles have on our health, with many studies suggesting frequent home use of soot-producing paraffin candles can lead to poor air quality.

Research by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Lung Association found paraffin candles can emit a frightening range of carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Combine this with
indoor air already polluted by paints, glues, plastics and cleaning products, and heading outside for fresh air takes on new meaning.

A study reported by the American Chemical Society found regularly burning paraffin wax candles indoors to be a source of indoor air pollution, including known human carcinogens.

“An occasional paraffin candle and its emissions will not likely affect you,” says co-author of the study Amid Hamidi. “But lighting many paraffin candles every day for years or lighting them frequently in an unventilated bathroom around a tub, for example, may cause problems.”

But it’s not all bad news. Soy and beeswax candles produce virtually no soot, and what’s more, burning beeswax is said to actually improve indoor air quality.

The verdict

The worker bees deserve a green star, with beeswax candles coming out on top of the eco-ledger. They’re sourced from a natural process that doesn’t encourage deforestation or harm eco-systems, generates minimal carbon emissions when burned and is even said to purify the air we breathe.

They may cost a little more than their more plentiful counterparts, but they’ll burn for longer and make your home smell sweet like honey. Source your candles from Australian bees and you’ve got yourself a true winner.

Soy wax is also a good option, provided the soy beans are grown sustainably. Soy candles work best in glass holders as their low melting point causes them to deform easily in the sun or warm environments.

Steer clear of palm wax and particularly paraffin wax – farming the former is eco-intensive, while the carbon emissions and soot-producing properties of the latter make it a decidedly poor choice.

Flameless, blameless?

Flameless or electric candles are often touted as a safer, cleaner and more practical alternative to their traditional cousins. They are typically made from plastic, silicone resin or, for more authentic aesthetics, paraffin wax.

While flameless candles boast the obvious benefit of being soot-free, plastic and silicone resin are derived from the same carbon emission-generating oil as paraffin wax, so they’re not a particularly green option.

What’s more, they’re powered by batteries, which have a nasty impact on the environment at the end of their lives. Some 94 per cent of dead batteries end up in landfill, where they can cause damage to soil micro-organisms and affect the breakdown of organic matter.

Rechargeable batteries are a better option, but not so good that flameless candles surpass beeswax and soy candles. For eco-friendly mood lighting, natural is best.