I know. You’re probably wondering why I would consider a plastic lighter instead of a match. I’m not! I’m not! Don’t worry. After seeing photos like these of baby albatross chicks who’ve ingested plastic lighters, I would never buy another one of those things.
Detail of photo from the series Midway: Message from the Gyre by Chris Jordan
Albatross chicks on Midway Island, thousands of miles from civilization, swallow plastic bottle caps, plastic toys, and plastic lighters. And even if plastic lighers don’t end up inside an unsuspecting animal, they’ll still wind up lasting forever in a landfill.
So let me back up. After seeing photos like the one above of dead albatross chicks two and a half years ago, I made a commitment that after my plastic lighters ran out, I would switch to matches. So even though I still have these plastic lighters in my house, I started looking for plastic-free matches before I needed to.
I wanted matches that were long enough to light a candle inside a deep candle holder or fireplace without burning myself. Unfortunately, all the long matches I found came in boxes wrapped in plastic. Finally, one day I found these somewhat long wooden matches packaged in a cardboard box without any plastic. The length is not perfect, but it’ll do.
Then last month, I stumbled across the match vs. lighter question on the Re-nest web site and noticed that one commenter had written “Sounds like a question for Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish.” I was ready to respond when I remembered something I had read on the Tiny Choices web site and decided to do a little research.
In her post, “My New Flame: A Vintage Zippo Lighter” (unfortunately the post has been removed), Jenn extolled the virtues of the vintage refillable metal lighter she bought on eBay. Arguing that matches are disposable and perhaps come from virgin forests, Jenn felt that a reusable lighter was the way to go. But I wondered… is the butane in a lighter, a petroleum product, more eco-friendly than the wood used for matches, not to mention the chemicals used on the head and the strike strip on the box?
So first, I emailed the company that manufactures my new matches, HomArt, and received a reply from customer service rep Gary Crother who wrote,
The wood comes from Aspen or poplar and is impregnated with ammonium phosphate and paraffin wax…. The heads are a mixture of potassium chlorate with animal glue together with inert materials to moderate combustion and minor amounts of red amorphous phosphorus and colorants.
I also learned from Wikipedia that “The striking surface is composed of typically 25% powdered glass, 50% red phosphorus, 5% neutralizer, 4% carbon black and 16% binder….”
Sounds like an awful lot of chemicals compared to butane. So I decided to ask a few experts. First, I put the question to Umbra Fisk from Grist, the Dear Abby of eco questions. Her reply: Neither are perfect. Butane comes from petrochemicals and is usually stored in a container with at least a plastic cap. Matches are made from all the chemicals I listed above. She went on to say that the Diamond match company sources its wood from sustainable sources (although I could not find confirmation of that assertion on the Diamond web site) so they have that going for them. Unfortunately, all Diamond match boxes come packaged in plastic, so they are not the best choice for me.
With this non-committal reply from Umbra, I put the question to the smartest woman I know, Jennifer Taggart who blogs at The Smart Mama and whose book The Smart Mama’s Green Guide is a wealth of information about chemicals in the home and in the environment.
After weighing all the pros and cons, she leans towards the lighter as the lesser evil:
But here are my thoughts – the production of all the different ingredients for a match head probably exceeds the environmental cost of the production of butane for a reusable lighter. Also, most people don’t safely dispose of their matches – I’m sure you would, but many people just toss on the ground. So, I’m thinking that the combined effects of all those matches is probably worse than the reusable butane lighter.
So what do you think? Reusable lighter or wooden matches? Butane? Or ammonium phosphate, paraffin wax (which is also a petroleum product), potassium chlorate, animal glue and red phosphorus (which, incidentally, is used to make meth.), and wood.
Any chemists in the house?
P.S. The lighter is not going to prevent me from burning my fingers while lighting candles in deep candle holders.
P.P.S I also realize the question of matches vs. lighters doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the greater environmental picture. But considered from a larger perspective, the production of all these chemicals for other uses like fertilizers and fireworks does.