What’s better for the environment: oil or wax Shabbos candles?

Type of Light 
Materials Used 
Processing by-products 
Burning by-products 
Wax
Tallow (animal fats)
Yes
Yes
Wax
Petrochemicals (e.g., paraffin)
Yes
Yes-PAHs
Wax
100% Beeswax
Best Option
Best Option
Oil
Whale Spermaceti
Yes
Yes
Oil
Petrochemicals (e.g., paraffin)
Yes
Yes-PAHs
Oil
Plant Extracts (olive or soy vegetable)
Best Option
Best Option

 
There are several aspects of the candle that require our analysis (see table above). First, let’s examine the processes used to create the wax and oil candles and the role each plays in our environment. Wax can be made from: tallow (animal fats), petrochemicals (e.g., paraffin), or beeswax. Oils are produced from whale spermaceti (an independent environmental issue), petrochemicals, or plant extracts. In processing these materials, the candles may leave some undesirable by-products. For example, to produce the wax candles from tallow, environmentally degrading acids are used to remove the lime needed to separate glycerin from the tallow, which are released when they are burned.
 
This brings us to our second consideration, what is released into the air from burning wax or oil candles. As with the combustion of gasoline, burning petrochemical-based wax or oil candles produces unwanted by-products, e.g., polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can be carcinogenic. Fortunately, beeswax may be an alternative. According to manufacturers, beeswax does not produce soot, smoke, or PAHs like the paraffin candles. They also claim that beeswax candles give off negatively charged ions that will cleanse the air of dust, etc. However, a manufacturer can legally claim to have a beeswax candle and use only 30% beeswax. The other 70% could contain petrochemical-based waxes or oils.
 
The next consideration is the candle additives, specifically non-combustible fragrances. While these additives are not typically a concern for Shabbos candles, one should be aware that some scents are environmentally damaging. Candle burning does not result in complete combustion of all organic molecules, thus unwanted by-products, unique to each class of scents, may be produced. Another consideration is the risk of burns; a recent article from the Journal of Pediatrics has assessed that oil carries with it a greater risk than candles.
 
The last consideration is the wick itself. Historically, toxic metals like lead, zinc, or tin have been and still are used in many candles to keep the wick stiff and upright. Additionally, each toxic metal can remain in the air as well as the soot produced by the burning candle and wick.
 
There is a “bright” side to all this. Minimally polluting wax candles made of 100% beeswax, or oil candles made from olive or soy vegetable oil, and wicks without metal additives can be purchased – enter “beeswax candles” or “vegetable oil candles” into Google for product information. Additionally, you can find inexpensive olive oil in your local supermarket. If you don’t already have them, you can buy appropriate wicks (petilot) and burning containers (not the same as the globes sold for burning paraffin oil) at your local Judaica store. Such options are, of course, the preferred choice for an environmental friendly Shabbos.
 
Now that we have our environmental choice for candles, we asked Rabbi Shlomo Levin (Lake Park Synagogue, Milwaukee, WI) about potential Halachic concerns and he wrote the following:
 
“Shabbat candles are lit in order for us to use the light on Shabbat. When candles were the only source of light, Chazal wanted people to enjoy their Shabbat dinner and evening together so they made a rule that people have to spend the money on oil to light a candle so they will have light as part of oneg Shabbat. Therefore, the rule regarding which oils can be used relates to whether the burning of that oil is pleasant. Generally, things that emit a bad odor or otherwise don’t make a pleasant flame are not permitted, whereas oils that are pleasant are fine. Olive oil is preferred. I am not aware of anything specific regarding vegetable oil, but provided that it burns cleanly with no odor I believe that it is O.K.”
 
Interestingly, one of the best choices for the environment is also the best according to the Talmud: olive oil. Good (environmentally-friendly) Shabbos!
 
Originally posted in “On Eagles’ Wings” May 3rd 2004

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