The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
February 19, 2010

Match vs. Lighter. My Candles Are Awaiting Your Reponse.

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.

Chris Jordan albatross chick swallows plastic lighter
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.

plastic lighters

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.

wooden matches

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,” Jenn extols 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.

39 comments
MDavis
MDavis

Other people have mentioned both skewers and spaghett as spills already, my first two ideas.

 

Third method:  get a broom, like a handmade one, (think craft show or farmer's market) and pull off a bristle when you want to light your candle. They are also good for checking to see if your cake is done.

Also, when the gas guy came to turn on our gas he had a device made from an alligator clip on the end of a metal stick so he could reach the pilots with his match.

 

Purrin
Purrin

yeah great question as I am a smoker and I also have a gas stove that I light regularly. I use long matches for the oven. I am interested in reducing my carbon footprint and was about to switch to matches for smoking. Now I'm thinking of using Dad's old zippo instead. I get it refelled at the tobacconist as I just don't like dealing with that personally. But of course eventually he is going to throw away the bottle, can or whatveer it comes in. I am guilty of throwing a few of those plastic lighters away. The poor albatross though. I didn't know candles had any emissions, a couple of people mentioned it. Yes I light candles to save on lighting, but I am also buying some sun jars which last for years and have the same ambience as a candle. You would still need candles on rainy days though. I guess there is probably some plastic in the solar panels in the sun jars or whatever, but perhaps you want to look them up and consider those. I have sunny window sills so I"m really keen on the sunjars. Sorry about my smoking, but yes I am trying to do a little bit like make my own household products and grow my own veges so hopefully even a little bit counts.

peaJayFish
peaJayFish

Aspen was the first to note that Zippos do not use butane, they use lighter fuel with naphtha. I need to research this, but none of the options are perfect, certainly. Though a large bottle of Ronsonol will last even a serious smoker a pretty long time, it's still a plastic bottle. I think Zippo brand lighter fluid still comes in a steel can with a plastic top, but I only ever see very small ones. As far as a reliable lighting instrument, you can't beat the durability of a Zippo. As long as you don't lose it or have it stolen, there is no reason not to have it for life. They are guaranteed by Zippo, no matter where you got it, forever (the inside part). My husband has never been a fan of butane lighters, which he reports are unreliable. Love the spaghetti idea for lighting candles. Smart, smart, SMART people! : )

Randi
Randi

Thanks so much for doing all this research! I used to buy plastic lighters, but I discovered recently that the matchbooks that I find on the ground are usually enough to light all the incense I want. I've often wondered, though, about those chemicals on the tip, and whether or not they prevent used matchsticks from being compostable.

Aspen
Aspen

I've been wondering about this for a while. I was aware of red phosphorous amongst other chemicals used in the production of matches, as well as the impact of using wood, etc. My house is actually heated in part by a wood stove (in the winter we have a lot of power outages and the cost of heating is quite expensive as well), so one of the two things is sort of necessary for me. I also smoke a pipe sometimes. I actually have a zippo, but the problem I have with that is the fact that in order to refill it, I need a bottle of lighter fluid (which is either completely plastic or contains plastic components). Zippo fluid (and other lighter fluid) also doesn't seem to burn in a very clean manner. I honestly don't know. It's a bit of a conundrum for me as well. Obviously disposable lighters are a waste, but I'm wondering about refillable butane lighters over Zippos perhaps. Reading the comment above, a good, reliable fire starter would also work for me.

Annie
Annie

I use kitchen matches for all my lighting needs. The reason being that when done the match remnants will decompose while the plastic from the lighters will not. To me that makes the difference. Considering that there are chemicals in both types, at least the match will turn into compost!

Jaylah
Jaylah

Spaghetti or -- since the narrowest pasta I usually have on hand is fettuccine -- I often use one of those little bamboo skewers you use to make satay (am I spelling that right?). As with the spaghetti, just keep relighting it to light the candles. One skewer lasts forever.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

@Randy Outlaw Yes. All of Chris Jordan's photos from Midway are unaltered. If you click the link under the photo, you will see a whole lot more where that came from. Midway Island is a plastic disaster. @Darryl Can you use the lit spaghetti idea? No idea since I am clean and sober these days. @Sakeenah I only buy/burn unscented local beeswax candles and since no one has asthma in our home, I think it's okay. I have actually gotten rid of all the scented candles that were given to me over the years because they make me cough and give me a headache, so I hear you. Everyone -- I love the idea of lighting a piece of spaghetti! Maybe I'll keep a container of them near the fireplace. However, I actually light candles or fires so rarely that my lighters and my new matches will probably last a very, very, very long time.

sakeenah
sakeenah

have you addressed the issue of the chemicals that are in your candle? I love candles but have stopped buying them b/c my son has asthma and I dont want to contribute to bad indoor air

Condo Blues
Condo Blues

My husband bought a flint and metal striker set at Colonel Willamsburg how well it works depends upon the style of candle. Tapers are easier to light with it than pillar candles. .-= Condo Blues´s last blog ..Expensive Energy Efficient Light Bulbs Can Sill You Save Money =-.

Christine Russell
Christine Russell

Beth - check the bottom of your red plastic lighter. They don't advertise it but most of those lighters are just as refillable as a zippo. If there's a little metal tube sticking out of the bottom anywhere, your lighter may never need to go into a landfill. Most people chuck them after they're empty, but they could last in use forever, instead of in the ocean forever.

Darryl
Darryl

What about us poor weed smokers? We can't light our bowls/bongs w. matches and the chemicals in Zippos are terrible for our lungs and make our yummy weed taste terrible.

Deanna Piercy
Deanna Piercy

I'm always amazed at the things you come up with that hadn't crossed my mind (yet). We aren't smokers so mostly it's a matter of lighting fires in the fireplace and the occasional candle. However, my husband does like to carry a lighter when we go see our friends in New Orleans who sing in a rock band on Bourbon Street. For some reason he likes to be able to offer people a light when they can't find their lighter or in case a power ballad breaks out. ;) Last year he bought a beautiful Zippo lighter with the firefighter emblem on it (he's a volunteer firefighter). Before that he would buy a cheap plastic lighter as soon as we got to New Orleans and usually throw it away before we left. In that case, it seems the Zippo is the better choice.

jill
jill

I use paper matches held in a pair of spring loaded kitchen tongs for candles and fires. For the furnace and water heater pilot lights a friend made a " double loop on a stick" for want of a better term , out of a metal cloths hanger, that I slide a paper match into in order to reach the long distance back towadrs the pilot. The latter is an old tenement trick. Matches were expensive in the tenements. Women used wooden matches to light one gas jet on the stove and then quickly lit the second jet and blew out the match. They reused the nubs of the match in the loop gadget to light other needed jets/candles etc until there was no more match left.

Randy Outlaw.
Randy Outlaw.

Great question and comments. I wonder, is that an unaltered authentic photo of the baby albatross? People of the world use so much fossil fuel for so many purposes. It's discouraging. The beeswax candle lit by a spaghetti noodle is a winner, that's for sure.

Rob
Rob

How about a refillable Butane Lighter? My boss just got me one at work to light oilot lights and it is great! Sure made out of plastic... but refillable means it should last until I retire in 5 yearsl .-= Rob´s last blog ..HOW TO GREEN YOUR MARDI GRAS BEADS =-.

Kyce at Old Recipe
Kyce at Old Recipe

Phew, a reminder at how very complicated living with as little impact as possible can really be. I so appreciate your thoughtfulness about this question, but it seems like a bit of a draw...both are better if they help us to light our beeswax candles and turn off our lights a bit more often, or to turn away from other far more significant lifestyle choices with environmental impact. In case you get inspired to do more research, why not compare kerosene lamps and beeswax candles to electric lights? .-= Kyce at Old Recipe´s last blog ..For all of it =-.

Andrew Rodgers
Andrew Rodgers

Have you checked out the IMCO lighters? They are a vintage design from the WWI or WWII trenches. They have an integrated "Candle" that could be used to light deep candles. Check them out, just do a search for "IMCO Lighter" on Google. They are truly an example of usage based design, they work great and they look cool. Andrew Rodgers .-= Andrew Rodgers´s last blog ..WordPress Function to Style New or Updated Posts =-.

Eleanor
Eleanor

I like the flint solution (better yet, I've got a used one my father gave me). But I'm masochistic like that, I like cantankerous solutions that fit my ethics. I bought my boyfriend a zippo for christmas (yes it was new, mea culpa!) because I broke one of his plastic disposable lighters, felt bad, and couldn't bring myself to replace it with another disposable. (I broke it during what is now furtively referred to as The Kosher Chicken Incident, a very dark time indeed) As usual, your thorough research is comforting - there's just something about knowing where information probing the depths of questions I never thought to answer is centrally located that my "inner librarian" rejoices over.

Andrea
Andrea

How about flint and steel: http://www.northwestjournal.ca/I1.htm or a magnifying glass? (Personally, I hate the smell of sulfur from a lit match so I always use a lighter...but if it ever runs out of fuel, I'll have to come back and see what you come up with). .-= Andrea´s last blog ..Savoring =-.

Nancy
Nancy

What about paper matches? I have a gadget that was a gift many years ago...it holds the match like a big pair of tweezers and you can reach any deep wick with it. I guess the match head might still be a problem but the paper would decompose right?

marcelebrate
marcelebrate

Wow, as the commenter you mentioned in your article, it's great to see that you actually posed this question to yourself and did the research to back it up. There's a lot more grey area to this question than I certainly would have imagined. While it may not amount to a "hill of beans," your research did a great job of shedding the light (ha, sorry) on the complexity of a seemingly simple product. As a vegetarian who now avoids leather, I guess the animal glue now makes matches less than vegetarian/vegan. Who knew? Thanks for the research and all you do to keep us aware of our impact, however minute the detail.

Diana
Diana

I don't know how good this is but sometimes when I need to light a candle I use the fire from the stove (most of the time is while cooking) and stick a spaghetti or a piece of paper that we can't recycle... Of course not useful if there's a blackout...

Gaming Girl
Gaming Girl

This is nothing about which to choose (though I personally prefer wooden matches because I'm scared of lighting small lighters), but rather lighting candles in deep holders/wood fires. Light the end of a piece of spaghetti. It burns very slowly and will let you light several candles. Then you can blow it out and keep using it until it's too short.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

I've always used a piece of uncooked spaghetti to light any wicks I can't reach - light the end and then light the candle, and one piece of spaghetti lasts forever.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Hi E.D. Unfortunately, I wasn't clear enough in my post that I was referring to a vintage (meaning second hand) lighter like Jenn's. In that case, the energy and mining to create the metal lighter can be removed from the equation and we are left with extraction, refining, and shipping of the butane. But I'm really not sweating it. Like Amber said, the plastic lighters I already have will probably last a very long time. But I like to consider these things.

Sarah
Sarah

You can light a piece of spaghetti to reach into deep candleholders. This doesn't solve your how-to-start-a-fire problem, but it does solve your matches-are-too-short problem. Considered using a bowdrill? :)

Tracey
Tracey

I say get a used refillable lighter. I get by on discarded lighters. .-= Tracey´s last blog ..FREE Floor Passes to the Yoga Show! =-.

Pure Mothers
Pure Mothers

We have been lighting my son's lantern he made at Christmas for his lantern walk each evening for dinner. I also want to teach my son (when he's older) to respect fire and learn how to handle a lighter/matches so he doesn't accidentally hurt himself. This is a good question, Beth. I buy the long plastic torches but I've noticed they run out very fast. (At least the ones here in England do compared to the US previously purchased ones). But I don't like buying disposable plastic. I had no idea about all the chemicals on a wooden match - and for vegetarians/vegans out there concerned with the animal glue, they may want to consider other alternatives also. Hmm.... do they make refillable long torches vs. lighters?? There's a new business for someone! I'd buy that. .-= Pure Mothers´s last blog ..Happy 101 Award =-.

Ken
Ken

Why not some flint and metal. They sell the little camping tools. You would then need a little plate to have a mini burn pile. Then you could have a genuine stick to go light things. Then theres no need for plastic. Although it is time consuming.

E.D.
E.D.

Matches -the wood has been logged and cut into strips using power derived from fossil fuel -chemicals as you have listed -power and raw materials you need to make and ship those chemicals -paper to contain the matches (paper production is water- and power-intensive) -power used to ship the paper containers to the match factory -shipment of the finished matches using power derived from fossil fuel -possible improper disposal of strike strip or unused matches Reusable lighter -power used to mine the ore and produce the lighter (very energy intensive even if it is recycled aluminum) -power to ship the finished lighter -power used to drill, refine, and ship a petroleum product -power to produce the large butane container I would probably stick with the matches on the basis of total carbon footprint because of all the power needed to drill, refine, and ship petroleum products.

Amber
Amber

We got a bunch of those long plastic lighters years ago, when we were married. So far, they're still going strong. Honestly, though, we rarely light anything. It's my daughter's birthday this weekend and so we'll be doing candle for her cake, but outside of birthdays we burn candles no more than a few times a year. And since we don't smoke or camp, it means that it's pretty rare for us to actually light something in any case. Given that, I think I would probably look into plastic-free matches, since refilling a lighter sounds like a lot of work for 6 uses a year. .-= Amber´s last blog ..Happy 5th Birthday to My Girl =-.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Hi Carol. What about local, unscented beeswax candles, which are the only kind I ever burn.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Fake Plastic Fish debates match vs. lighter. [...]

  2. [...] Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish; she picked this thought up where I dropped it off.  I thought about paper matches being a disposable item I’d prefer to avoid; Beth emailed a [...]

  3. 9 ways to ditch plastic. | Franklin Goose Blog says:

    [...] Stop using plastic lighters. This comes from fakeplasticfish. (It is a tough image to look at but [...]

  4. [...] If I didn’t have the disposable lighter that was already here when I moved in, I could light candles with a piece of spaghetti ignited with the stove. I got that tip from the comments on the FakePlasticFish when Beth Terry was debating matches versus lighters. [...]

  5. [...] I am not a fan of plastic lighters. They are a pretty common site on the beach and elsewhere in the environment. Matches aren’t necessarily a green solution. I decided to try out the flint and steel option. A torch striker cost me €2.33 and it unfortunately came in a little plastic bag. It took a little while to get the hang of it but as you can see in this poorly lit video, it works.If I didn’t have the disposable lighter that was already here when I moved in, I could light candles with a piece of spaghetti ignited with the stove. I got that tip from the comments on the FakePlasticFish when Beth Terry was debating matches versus lighters. [...]