Everything we do has a detrimental or beneficial impact on the environment, and that includes whether we choose to light a candle or not.
If you're concerned about the environment, you may be worried about how bad candles are in terms of global warming, plastic pollution, and more. The good news is that candles can have a small environmental footprint—as long as you choose the right ones.
Just like some foods have higher carbon footprints than others, certain types of candles are better for the environment. Let's break down the different ingredients that go into a candle and which choices are sustainable.
How Waxes Impact the Environment
Almost any sort of oil or fat can be turned into a candle. Hundreds of years ago, animal fats from pigs, cows, and even whales were used to make candles. Today, the choices are more along the lines of paraffin, beeswax, soy wax, coconut wax, and other vegetable waxes. There's a huge variance in what candle wax is made from and also how impactful it is on the environment.
The Environmental Impact of Paraffin Wax
You've probably heard by now that paraffin is the least environmentally friendly type of wax you can have in your candle. Paraffin is made from fossil fuels, which are themselves unsustainable, but they're also bad for your health and your home.
Paraffin candles release a plume of carcinogenic materials into the air whenever they’re lit and can leave soot damage behind even with a properly trimmed wick. We don’t recommend them for health reasons or to environmentally conscious people as a candle choice.
The Environmental Impact of Soy Wax
Soy wax was originally developed as a sustainable solution for candle lovers. It is clean-burning, made from vegetable oil, and when grown in an environmentally sound manner, it is a great candle choice.
The problem with soy is that much of the time it is not grown sustainably. In South America, where a great deal of soy is grown, farmers will burn the rain forest to clear more land for cattle and soy.
Soy itself is not the problem, but it needs to be ethically grown if it is going to be part of a candle that is sound for the environment.
The Environmental Impact of Palm Wax
Palm oil is another clean burning wax that should be sustainable but isn't. Palm oil is worse, however, because it is much more difficult to source sustainable palm wax than it is to source sustainable soy.
Soy is grown all over the world. We know that if it was grown in the Midwest, for example, no rain forests were cut down for that field of soy. If it's certified organic, you know no fossil fuels were sprayed on the fields to fertilize or kill insects.
With palm oil, however, there is no way to know if it was grown sustainably or not. Even if palm oil claims to be sustainable through certification programs such as the RSPO, they may not be sustainable after all.
An investigation by The Economist discovered that the RSPO has very little control over what its members do, and very few of those members are certified. This makes palm oil a disastrous choice for the environment, even if it claims to be sustainable.
The Environmental Impact of Beeswax
Beeswax is made from melting down honeycombs made by honey bees. They are completely sustainable and natural and are a great choice for candles. Supporting bee agriculture also helps the environment indirectly by encouraging the growth of bee populations we need to pollinate flowers both for food crops and in the wild.
Beeswax isn't ideal for all candles since they don't scent well and have a low melting point, but as far as the environment goes, they are a great choice.
The Environmental Impact of Coconut Wax
Another popular wax for candles is coconut wax, and this one also has a green light for the environment. This plant-based wax is sustainable, and thanks to the coconut tree's low need for pesticides and fertilizer, it is often ethically grown. It also has a low melting point, so look for coconut wax mixed with another wax such as soy to get the best of both worlds.
Wicks and What They Mean for the Planet
Of course, the wax isn't the only part of the candle that can have an impact on the environment. What sort of wick you use can also have a huge effect on air pollution, as well as the sustainability of the product.
Are Cotton Wicks Eco-Friendly?
You're probably familiar with cotton wicks, the most common type of wick in use for candle making. What you may not know is that many of these wicks are dipped in ingredients that are not environmentally friendly.
Cotton wicks are sometimes dipped in paraffin wax, which we already talked about, but also zinc and other chemicals to help promote a quick light. If the cotton itself is not organic, it can be very detrimental to the planet because of how much water and fossil-fuel derived pesticides and fertilizer it needs to grow.
On top of this, if the candle is imported or older, it may still contain a lead core that can release huge amounts of lead into the atmosphere while burning.
The most environmentally sound option for wicks is a wood wick. These are less common than cotton wicks, so you may not have even seen a wood wick sitting on the grocery store shelf. They not only provide improved ambiance and a clean burn but are much easier to source in an environmentally friendly manner.
If you are looking for an environmentally friendly candle, wood wicks or untreated organic cotton are the best choices.
Are Fragrance Oils Eco-Friendly?
While some people enjoy lighting up a candle just for the ambiance, many more like to have a candle that gives off a pleasant scent while burning. The scent itself can be all over the map in terms of whether it is good for your health and the planet.
In general, you want to choose a scented oil that is free of parabens and phthalates. When burned, these send chemicals into the air that can cause cancer.
Check labels carefully when choosing a scented candle to make sure it contains no chemicals that may be harmful when burned, and limit burning time to avoid sending large amounts of chemicals into the air.
Choosing an Eco-Friendly Candle Container
One final consideration is the container the candle comes in. The container itself can be made out of a variety of materials. Glass and tin are both highly recyclable materials and are both common materials for making candles with.
An extra step some candle makers make is to use 100% recycled materials in their candles, helping to keep these materials out of landfills.
You can do your part too by recycling empty candle containers when you are done with them. That might mean taking glass to a recycling center or tossing your metal candle holders into the recycling in. Even tea light candles usually have containers made out of tin that is easily recyclable.
Responsibly Burn Candles without Harming the Environment
Whether you choose to burn a candle in your home or not may seem like a small thing compared to other choices that determine our environmental impact. After all, it is probably more harmful to use incandescent bulbs rather than energy-efficient ones or to waste large amounts of food.
Yet with global warming becoming a rising problem around the world, even small changes can make a difference in the outcome for our planet.
A quality candle with a carefully trimmed wick will have very little impact on the environment and your health, while a paraffin wax candle with a chemical infused wick and poorly made scent will be toxic to both you and the environment.
The next time you choose a candle, make a conscious choice to choose a natural one that is good for both you and the planet. There are so many things that go into a good candle—now you know what to look out for.