The controlled use of fire has been one of the defining features of human advancement. Without this discovery, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog post.
Way back when, humans would have created a spark by hand and a bit of manual labour. Nowadays however, it’s much easier to create a flame from the tips of our fingers.
Without the ability to create instant fire, you wouldn’t be able to light your candles at home, a celebratory cigar or a camping stove in the wilderness.
Two of the main ways to get a fire are through the use of wooden matches or a gas fuelled lighter. Both produce a spark very easily but in quite different ways.
It may seem like a simple choice but eco conscious people like you and I want to limit our environmental impact in all aspects of life. This begs the question: are matches or lighters better for the environment?
To work out whether matches or lighters are better for the environment, we need to consider how both products are made, from what materials, plus how you dispose of them.
I’ll consider wooden matches for the first half of this blog, lighters for the second half, and wrap up my thoughts at the end. Let’s get to it.
What are matches made from?
Matches are generally made from wood, stiff cardboard or recycled paper. The first successful match was created in County Durham by John Walker in 1826.
One end of the match, the match head, is coated with material that can be ignited by friction once struck against a suitable surface.
Most matches come in a cardboard matchbox, but paper matches tend to be placed in rows in a book format known as strips. For this article, I’ll mostly be considering the wooden matchsticks found in a matchbox.
With wooden matches, the wood used to make these generally come from a softwood tree, such as white pine, poplar or aspen. A question many people ask is just how many matches can be made from one tree?
According to Swedish Match, you can make around 1 million matches from one tree.
What is a match head made of?
A wooden match requires a mix of chemicals to ignite. The head typically contains the active ingredient potassium chlorate, a silicon filler, a neutraliser and glue.
This head is generally struck against a surface on the outside of the box.
This specially prepared surface usually contains roughly 50% red phosphorous (active ingredient that reacts with potassium chlorate), 25% powdered glass (to create friction), a small amount of sulphur, a binder and small percentage of carbon black.
The wooden match gets this ‘red head’ from being dipped into the chemical solution.
You may see the term ‘safety’ match. This refers to the fact that these matches can only be successfully struck against a specific surface, which helps combine the two separate active ingredients.
How environmentally friendly are matches?
Match making used to be a big business in the UK, but it has slowly been outsourced. The last match factory, Bryant and May, closed in Liverpool in 1994. Now, we import the vast majority of our matches from Sweden. This is a short journey, so not too bad in terms of environmental footprint.
Wooden matches are biodegradable and will not persist in the environment, unlike a disposable lighter. If you use a wooden match to light your wood burning stove, you can just put the match in the fire that it just started.
It’s also possible to put your used wooden match into the compost pile. Small wooden sticks, as you know, are compostable, but it’s the head that raises doubt. However, the chemicals in the head (the phosphorous and potassium chlorate, plus the carbonised top after burning), will also compost down naturally into their constituent parts.
It’s not all rosy though for wooden matches. Alongside cutting down trees, matches also need several chemical compounds to function as they do.
For example, the wooden match sticks have to be soaked in ammonium phosphate and paraffin wax so they burn in a controlled manner. Incidentally, paraffin wax is the same material that makes traditional candles not very eco friendly, which is why it’s always best to opt for natural candles where possible.
Then there are the chemicals in the match head as described above.
How is a lighter made?
In spite of its diminutive size, lighters are pretty complex pieces of engineering.
Much of the body and base of the lighter is made from acetyl resin, a type of thermoplastic. Inside this is the liquid fuel, butane.
At the top of the lighter is the sparkwheel, hood and guard, all made from steel. There’s also a valve, the jet, fork springs and the little stopper ball that are all made from other metals.
All in all, there’s a lot of energy and embodied carbon found in a disposable lighter.
How environmentally friendly is a disposable lighter?
Most gas-fuelled lighters sold today are disposable. Straight away, this isn’t great for the environment. When they’ve ran out of juice, most lighters are chucked away and will find their way to landfill if we’re lucky.
A lot of lighters become litter in the environment – thrown under a bush, lobbed into some trees or into our waterways and oceans. For the sake of argument, a disposable lighter will never degrade, certainly not in our lifetime.
Lighters are also heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry. The gas used inside is usually butane, and this is housed in a hard thermoplastic casing. It also contains several metallic moving parts that will never get recycled.
Bic, the same company who make the pens, are responsible for making several billion lighters each year! The US alone import around 700 million every year.
You can get refillable gas lighters, which are better than disposable. This will reduce the carbon footprint to an extent, but is still reliant on being filled up by the petrochemical product, butane.
Aside from this point, which is still a negative, disposable lighters are in no way good for the environment.
Are matches or lighters better for the environment?
In my opinion, matches are much better for the environment than disposable lighters.
Matches aren’t perfect and despite looking simple on the surface of things, match production contains quite a lot of chemicals, including the petrochemical-derived paraffin wax.
Disposable lighters are almost entirely made from fossil fuels. At this point in time, we need to keep as many fossil fuels in the ground as possible. Not only this, when a disposable lighter has no gas left, the best possible outcome is that the lighter ends up in landfill. And this isn’t a good place for waste.
So, opt for wooden matches that are ideally sourced from a sustainably managed forest and dispose of them correctly.