It's been a long day. The wine has been uncorked. Now, a shoulder rub, perchance? With candles, please.

Candles are sort of deceptive, in environmental terms, because they seem so, well, good. The romance and old-time feel of candlelight suggests virtue, and it beats electricity in an eco-battle, to be sure.

But we don't know many folks living by candlelight when the sun goes down. We do know many folks using candles to set the mood, the ambiance and the scent of their homes to honey mango yea. Candles are big business, not because of their necessity, but as decoration. Décor stores like Pier 1 Imports devote entire walls to a myriad of scents, colors, shapes and textures of wax.

A few points to keep in mind when burning up the boudoir:

  • Most candles are made from paraffin wax, which is derived from crude oil. Demand for these products plays into our reliance on fossil fuels.
  • When burned, paraffin wax emits carbon. Yep, carbon emissions in your own home! A group of Israeli environmentalists once used Hanukkah to highlight the carbon issue.
  • The safety, or potential toxicity, of gases released from fragranced candles is unknown. Anyone who got a headache from too much french vanilla in 1996 can attest to the sketchiness of these potions.
  • Older candles, the sort you've had in the emergency kit for twelve years, might have lead in their wicks. These are banned in many parts of the world, including the United States in recent years, but they slip into the market and wreak unhealthy havoc on indoor air quality. 
Take heart, lovers— no need to put out the fire. Greener candle choices include those made with pure cotton or paper wicks (that means wire-free), and those made from soy or beeswax. While they send soot into the air, as any burning organic compound will, they rely on renewable resources and have a longer burn-life. And as always, the more local the better. Aussie Malcolm Tattersall summed it up well in a comment for New Scientist magazine:

Environmental friendliness is complicated and, in the end, relative. The total environmental cost of the candles that light a dinner table include production and transport costs, and the disposal or recycling costs of the remnants. The total environmental cost of the electric light they probably NOTE: my bad, I forgot this was an excerpt. replace includes infrastructure costs. Both candles and electric light also cause pollution, the former in the dining room from burning wax and wick, and the latter from burning fossil fuel in the power station.
The "greenest" candles you could buy would be made from local beeswax, as they use renewable materials and incur little transport cost. Other than that, the fact that you are happy with the lesser light from candles instead of bright electric lights probably comes very close to balancing the higher environmental costs of candle production, packaging and transport.

But if enjoying a candlelit dinner leads a couple to go to bed earlier than usual, they will have saved lighting and heating costs for the later part of that evening, which would surely outweigh the difference in environmental cost between candle and electric lighting over dinner. And if that should happen to lead, in turn, to two one-person households becoming one two-person household, with consequent long-term reductions in heating and lighting needs, I think we can say candles can indeed prove to be environmentally friendly.


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