Burning candles can save energy
My friend Aleli is strangely attracted to living in the north. As if the southern Adirondacks weren’t cold enough for her, she also spent 10 years in Montreal and a year in Sweden before settling in St. Paul, Minn. And this is a person whose feet are generally cold.
The year in Sweden taught her a more about winter survival than the 10 years in Montreal, because Montreal is a city where people like to wear dress shoes and run in and out of stores for fromage and pork products. In Sweden, they’re more likely to be skiing, and wearing sensible boots and colorful hats.
It’s darker and colder in the winter in Sweden than any dark, cold place Aleli has lived. People get depressed there, as they do all over the north in the winter. But Swedes have three tricks for getting through the winter: cookies, ice skating and candles. Mostly candles.
“This is how Christmas should be,” Aleli wrote me that year she was in Sweden. “There are candles everywhere.” On the tables, in the windows. In houses and businesses. Even in newsrooms — a newspaper design consultant who spent a few months consulting us here at the Gazette told us that news meetings are exactly the same everywhere in the world, except Sweden. “In Sweden, they have meetings by candlelight,” he said. “It’s so cool.”
I don’t think New York state fire code would allow us to light candles for news meetings here. (I know we got in trouble the year we lit a menorah in the newsroom during Hanukkah.) But lighting candles in your own home during all the winter holidays is a way to create a cozy and festive atmosphere, without electricity.
Sure you can save electricity by swapping your strings of incandescent Christmas lights for LED icicles (now available in blue! and orange!) But isn’t a candelabra on the table, or candles inside glass chimneys in the windows, even more lovely and festive? Unless, of course, you have toddlers and cats to knock the candles onto the floor.
There’s one other thing to think about before you go all Sweden on winter. What are your candles made of?
If you go to the dollar store for the 10-pack of emergency candles, you probably have the cheapest sort of paraffin candles available. And that means a stick of hydrocarbon, made from crude oil.
Paraffin burns at a low temperature, (starting around 130 degrees F) and emits hydrocarbons, soot and any number of toxic chemicals, albeit in small doses. While the emissions from your personal paraffin candle might not be a huge contributor to global warming, they’re not real good for you, or those toddlers and cats. And that paraffin candle is made from a non-renewable source, and transported long distances to glow on your table. Even a bare light bulb might be an more environmentally-friendly choice for illumination.
A relative newcomer in the candle market is soy-based wax, which, according to what I’ve read, makes a better candle, one that burns without soot and comes from a renewable resource. But I’ve yet to see a soy candle in a store. Bayberry candles are natural, renewable, extremely expensive and hard to find.
That leaves beeswax as your most Earth-friendly way to light the season. Generally, the beeswax candles that you find in specialty stores, farm markers, orchards and craft fairs are made locally, by small-scale operators. So long-distance shipping is not a concern. Beeswax burns almost soot free, and a higher temperature than paraffin. That means that the candle, though more expensive, lasts much, much longer. And it smells great too.
And the Swedes? Beeswax is expensive there too. Sweden has a long tradition of making stearin candles, which were originally made of animal-based tallow but are now made from vegetable oils. That gets stearin green points for being renewably plant-based, as well as soot- and smoke-free. Because they are dripless, long-burning and cheaper than beeswax, they’re often used in churches that don’t specifically demand beeswax candles. Stearin’s melting point is similar to beeswax, 150 degrees F or higher, which is what makes them long-burning and soot free.
Still, even in Sweden, paraffin candles are more common, for the same reason they are more common all over the world: They’re cheap.
According to TreeHugger, an online environmental news magazine, about 20,0000 tons of candles a year are burned in Sweden each year. A company called Svanen is pushing for Swedes to switch from paraffin to stearin to cut down on emissions (which Treehugger says amounts to the equivalent of 15,000 cars a year).
I could not find a source to tell me how many tons of candles Americans burn each year. According to the National Candle Association, and yes, there is a National Candle Association, more than a billion pounds of wax are used to make the candles sold in the U.S. each year. But a lot of people don’t burn the candles they buy. My friend Vera, for instance, takes out the same four red candles with her advent wreath each year, and shrieks “They’re decorations!” if anyone goes near one with a match.
Maybe we should all be like Vera and keep the paraffin candles as flame-free decorations, and burn beeswax for festive holiday cheer.
Beeswax is the “greenest candle,” says Malcolm Tattersall of Queensland, Australia, writing on the website New Scientist. He lists several reasons: renewable materials, low transportation costs and — here’s where he gets creative — the way candlelit dinners tend to make people go to bed early, reducing electric light usage. “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 as well as, er, friendly,” Malcolm says.
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