After talking about decluttering the surfaces in my home to make cleaning more efficient and quicker at one of my talks, one of the members of the audience asked me “But what about ‘Gemütlichkeit’, what do you do about candles?“ I think zero waste, minimalism and “Gemütlichkeit,” or “hygge” as it is called in Denmark, aren‘t mutually exclusive (fun fact: ‘hygge’ has overtaken ‘minimalism’ as a google search term in October 2016). Decorating with natural materials such as pine cones or potted plants is zero waste and can also be pretty minimalist.
That being said, I have to admit that I‘m not one for decorations at all, clean surfaces are what keep me calm. We‘re not really candle people either, we still have candles in our drawers we were given over 5 years ago. I don‘t really know why, but maybe I‘m just not gemütlich? Or maybe it‘s because I‘m that person that has to check just one more time (ok, maybe twice), if the the stove really is turned off when I’m about to leave the flat for a longer time. And what about the bathroom heater? The clothes iron? Is the window still open? Did I lock the door? Getting out of the door would take infinitely longer if I‘d also have to check for open fires. Ok, I‘m exaggerating a bit, well, maybe…
But in all seriousness, here‘s a look at different types of candles and zero waste alternatives:
In principle, all candles fall under the definition of zero waste, as long as you buy them without packaging and manage to burn them down completely. However, some types of candles are more eco-friendly than others. First, let‘s have a look at the less eco-friendly options:
Your run-of-the-mill candle is probably made of paraffin wax. Paraffin wax is derived from petroleum, coal or oil shale. If you want to cut down on your use of petroleum-based products, you might want to avoid paraffin candles. Burning fossil fuels in the form of paraffin candles is not only bad for the environment, studies have shown that it can also be bad for your health. Researchers at South Carolina State University have found that “paraffin-based candles […] emitted toxic chemicals like toluene and benzene. […] Frequently lighting many candles in an unventilated space could lead to problems, and may aggravate asthma, cause allergy-like symptoms, or irritate the respiratory tract.“
Stearin can be derived from animal sources or from vegetable sources such as palm oil. Soy candles also form part of the stearin candle category, as the main component of soy wax is stearic acid. While both vegetable sources are theoretically renewable sources, soy and palm oil production definitely have their problems. Both are farmed in massive monocultures with a high use in pesticides which wreak havoc on the ecosystem and wildlife in countries such as Brazil or Indonesia. On the flip side, stearin-based candles were not found to emit any considerable amount of toxins.
Beeswax is a natural wax from the wax-producing glands of bees. While this is not a vegan option and large-scale bee farming is very similar to all other types of factory farming, I believe that there is some value in supporting your local, small-scale beekeeper. I talked to my local bee keeper and he told me that he harvests only a small amount of beeswax and uses most of it to prepare the frames for the hives in the next season. Based on this information, I decided that to me beeswax is a much too valuable resource to burn. I‘ve decided to use the small amount of beeswax I buy in cosmetics, but if you decide to use beeswax candles, they are a lot less toxic than the paraffin ones.
So here are some more zero waste options for a more cozy atmosphere in your rooms:
Using leftover wax
You can make your own candles from any kind of leftover candle wax. Simply ask family, friends, giveaway groups or your neighbourhood Italian restaurant for their leftover candle stumps. Doing this you don‘t generate any new demand for candles, they‘re second hand, so to say. You‘ll probably be able to find wick by the meter at your local craft store or you can even make your own from some cotton knitting yarn. Weck jars are great if you want to pour your candles into a glass, because they are relatively heat resistant, but you can also make hand-dipped candles.
Maybe you can find a candle manufacturer near you who makes new candles from donated wax, such as SinnLicht.
If, like me, you are too lazy to make your own candles, you could go for a wax burner. This nifty contraption consists of a ceramic bowl with a glass fibre wick which is held in place by an aluminium ring. You can feed the wax burner with leftover candle stumps. My slighlty pyromaniac husband thinks that this part is really fun. The glass fibre wick lasts a long time, as long as you don‘t use beeswax or candles with glitter particles in it and keep it covered when it‘s not in use to protect it from dust. You can also replace the wick if it doesn’t work anymore. Now, if there is a chance that the candle rests you‘re using are made from paraffin, you should take care to properly ventilate the space you‘re using it in and you should not use it every day.
Vegetable oil lamps
Homemade vegetable oil lamps are another great zero waste option. It‘s relatively easy to buy vegetable oil in bulk and you can even burn used cooking oil. The fumes from vegetable oil are less toxic than those released by paraffin candles.
To diy a vegetable oil lamp, you can simply form a wick holder from a piece of wire, thread the wick trough it and place this into a dish containing the oil you want to burn. Here, I used the leftover wire from a spiral notebook (I probably should have stripped the white paint off before using it). In place of a store-bought wick, you can also plait your own from a 100% cotton knitting yarn. I left my oil lamp on for three hours and it only used 11g of oil. It might also be possible to use the wax burner with vegetable oil. I have not tried that yet, but it would be awesome if that worked. The most sustainable oil to use in your lamp is probably the one that is produced closest to you, such as sunflower seed oil or rapeseed oil in Germany, but olive oil if you live in a Mediterranean country.
Moon jars or sun jars also radiate warm light without causing a lot of waste. They are typically flip-top jars with a small photovoltaic cell, a battery and an LED light. Exposure to sunlight charges the battery and then you can switch on the jar when it‘s getting dark outside. However, it seems to be a bit complicated to find a good quality one.