Why we don't use soy wax
It’s amazing nowadays to see homes insulated with recycled plastics, bottles constructed from recycled glass and bags comprised of recycled paper. When re-using our waste is so important to maintaining a healthy environment, would it not make sense then to make our candles by re-using oils?
As candle makers we often get asked about the waxes we use. Consumers are more conscious these days which is great. Soy wax is definitely on trend right now; it’s marketed as a sustainable, renewable resource, un-reliant on fossil fuels. We don’t use soy wax right now and we’d like to tell you why.
TLDR: Put simply, there’s a lot to take into consideration with the ethics between resources, a lot more than just what they’re, made from. We want to highlight the importance of constantly questioning things. If you're buying anything for its Eco-credentials you should see what information the supplier provides. Simply saying Eco-friendly is not enough, neither is simply assuming something is because at the very basic level it's derived from a plant.
- Just saying 'Eco-friendly' doesn't make a product Eco-friendly. It's much more complex than that
- While a soy plant is a natural product, soy wax is not. The plant is grown, then distributed, then processed - to be burnt as wax.
- We believe that if we were to use soy wax currently, it would have more of a negative global impact than positive environmental benefit
- We use recycled waste to have as little negative impact on our environment and economy as possible, as we believe every non-essential product should
- The phrase 100% soy wax can be misleading. A candle using soy wax is processed (like other candles) and has additives (like other candles) to make it burn.
- There's no significant, scientifically backed evidence to prove that soy wax is in any way less harmful, or cleaner burning than other wax types
- Soy grown on an industrial scale has a multitude of negative environmental and socio-economic impacts. Just being a plant doesn't make it Eco-friendly.
Look behind the buzzwords
It’s easy to jump on the wagon with Eco-friendly buzzwords, but what do they really mean? The impact of using the same resource supplied from one source may be entirely different if you procured it from somewhere else. The processes by which it’s harvested and made can be different and the distance to which it travels has to be considered too. A product and the material it’s made from are different things and the journey from how one has arrived to the other can be complex. Natural and organic are two different things, so are soy and soy wax.
Try not to accept sweeping statements such as ‘it’s great for agriculture’ or ‘it’s a renewable resource’ if they’re not followed up by evidence. Try to collect a variety of opinions and also think of the motives behind them. Most importantly, remember process and evidence is always changing.
What's soy used for?
You use a lot more soy than you imagine from day to day. Lecithin, a soy derivative, is widely used in processed food. Your beef burger is most likely raised on soy and soy additives are in many foods. The WFF has an in depth report on the growth of soy use and impacts - check it out. They also have a shorter interactive guide here.
Soya bean, soybean or Glycine max, is a species of legume originating from East Asia. It’s grown and used for a variety of things, but mainly its bean, which has a variety of uses including:
The soy market
Soy production has grown tenfold in the last 50 years, fuelled by its high yield per area, variety of uses and easily marketable environmental benefits. It’s estimated the total area of soy now covers the combined area of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. There’s some good infographics here on soy production growth.
Europe (where we're based) imports around 35x more soy than it produces. This soy demand equates to around 15mil ha of land, 13 million of which is in South America. For comparison, this area is equivalent to 90% of all the agricultural area of Germany, just for soy.
Several things have assisted soy's popularity as a resource:
At the moment soy is a capitalists dream. Production is increasing and demand is growing, it’s a huge industry with some pretty massive players.
There’s a problem here though right? The demand for soy is growing, we need more land to grow it and workers to farm it and we need to get it from where it’s to where it’s used.
Impacts of global soy production
We need somewhere to grow all this soy and Europe isn’t facilitating it all yet. The largest expansion of soy production has been in South America and it’s already contributed to deforestation and change in many important habitats such as the Amazon and Cerrado. Much of this land is incredibly biologically diverse – it’s home to a great array of animals and habitat compositions. Biological diversity is extremely important for a variety of reasons, not just for its own sake, but also for larger global issues such as climate change, resource regulation, soil health and more.
A Brazilian moratorium on growing soy in land cleared from Amazon forest has helped reduce this, but other habitats such as the Cerrado haven’t seen the same attention, it’s lost around half of its natural vegetation since the 1950’s a large part of this due to soy expansion.
Other areas at risk include the Atlantic Forest, the Chiquitano Dry Forest, the Gran Chaco, the Pampas in Argentina, the North American prairies and the Uruguayan Campos.
Let’s not forget that when we cut this forest down, we’re destroying not only some of the most unique habitats in the world and all the services that they provide, but also the homes of everything that lives in them.
Carbon sequestration is a natural or artificial process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and held in solid or liquid form. Trees sequester carbon, as does the sea. They're a substantial part of why some of the effects of climate change aren't as prominent as they could be yet.
Removing forest - comprised largely of mature trees, releases more carbon back intro the ecosystem and replaces it with young generation soy plants who's ability to capture and hold carbon is a lot less. This is what happens when trees are cut down to plant soy.
Studies of soy production in the Brazlian Cerrado found an annual loss from soil erosion of 8 tonnes per hectare of soil, with some areas as high as 19-30 tonnes. Soil erosion can lead to a loss of organic matter and nutrients form an area, reduce water quality and increase the problems of compaction and acidification. More sensitive farming methods can reduce soil erosion, but these practises aren’t used everywhere. The growth in soy demand has encouraged some farmers to plant in more erodible soils.
Water security is a growing issue. Fresh water is more of a finite resource than we think. Between 1997 and 2000, soybean used 4% of global irrigation water. Of course, water used varies among region and farming method - South American soy is mainly rain fed but is irrigated in other areas.
The soy in fields is more compacted than in rainforest, so tends to run off - rather than seep down into the soil. If intensive soy cultivation continues to expand however, we’ll need to use more of the global water supply to facilitate it.
Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are used more and more in modern farming and are of large environmental concern. They can impact water quality, contaminate soil and reduce biodiversity. They can also be detrimental to human health. One study tested 62 samples of breast milk in Mato Grosso, Brazil, finding traces of one or more toxic agrochemicals in every sample. Some estimates suggest that 35% of all pesticides used in Brazil are for soy farming. (The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics)
Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in one given area. Monocultures are widely evidenced to have negative impacts on ecological services and be more reliant on chemicals to control pests. Diverse ecosystems are more resilient and important to reducing the impacts of events such as climate change. Removing diverse rainforests structures for soy monocultures detracts from a variety of beneficial ecosystem services.
A lot of American soybean production is operated on a large industrial scale, which tends to be bad news to smallholders. For example, many farms in the Brazilian Cerrado and Amazon average 1,000 ha and even up to 50,000 ha (70,000 football pitches).
In Chaco province, Argentina, soy has overtaken smallholder crops such as cotton - the number of farmers owning under 100ha fell by 80% while the number of farms over larger than 1,000ha increased by 230% between 1998 and 2002. Large industrial enterprises can displace local communities in some areas and take away livelihoods if not expanded considerately; it also concentrates the economic benefits to far fewer people. While the growth in soy enterprises may positively impact developing countries’ economies, whether they benefit local individuals is another matter.
There have also been cases of human rights abuses in relation to soy. In 2004 the Brazilian government intervened in 236 cases of slavery in soy farms involving over 6,000 labourers, 127 of which were children. On a positive note, now that many of these cases have been exposed, these problems are being addressed.
Again, these issues are varied by geography. Some estimates believe that conversion to soy has removed four out of five farm jobs in parts of Argentina. On the contrary, soy is an important source of income and employment for several million smallholders in India and China.
GM soy first came about in 1996 to make crops resistant to herbicides. Argentina and the US are now almost entirely in use of GM soy. In 2009 77% of global soy production was GM. Genetic modification is a hotly debated topic – what’s the best approach to GM? We’d argue a precautionary approach. If it doesn’t need to be used, or the only reason to use it is for financial benefit, don’t use it, especially if its impacts aren’t 100%
Is all soy questionably produced?
The way in which soy is produced is varied greatly. Yes you can find GM-free, smallholders producing soy in certain areas; however the majority is still produced in South America. Though improvements are being made in South America to soy production, many faults still exist.
We'd advocate that if you are buying a soy based product solely because of its environmental benefits, you try and find out where the soy has actually come from. If you're buying soy wax, you then might want to dig into the manufacture process too.
Soy wax production
Soy wax uses a mechanical process to separate the soybean matter from the oil. The oil is then refined and bleached. Soybean oil is then heated to 140-220 degrees Celsius in a hydrogenating machine. More than just soy goes into making soy wax, the wax is chemically distilled with hexane, bleached with chlorine, deodorized with boric acid and then hydrogenated.
Now, this isn’t to say that any other wax doesn’t use chemical processes in production. But we want to drive home - soy wax is more than just soybean off the plant.
Common misconceptions about soy wax
There's a lot of common misconceptions promoted by users of soy wax to try and sell their product. Here's some questions answered, backed up by the National Candle Association, the governing body of candle manufacturers in the United States.
Does soy wax burn cleaner?
If made well, with sufficiently refined oils, study shows that all wax types exhibit the same clean burning behaviour. Here’s a report on the National Candlemaker’s Association website.
Does soy wax burn longer?
Our candles have an average 35 hour burn time, we’ve timed it – you can if you like too! That’s on par with any similar size soy candle. If it’s not we’d question what else has been added to it, probably more paraffin.
Does soy wax hold the scent better?
Not if you want it to be natural. Even more chemicals are added to help soy wax hold its scent. Smell our candles for yourself, they smell great lit or not.
Is soy wax is the only biodegradable wax?
No. Studies have shown that beeswax, paraffin and vegetable-based waxes are all biodegradable.
Are soy candles better for your health?
No. Paraffin wax – like all candle waxes – is non-toxic. In fact, paraffin is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in food, cosmetics, and medical applications. Food-grade paraffin is commonly used for manufacturing candles.
Is soy good for animals?
If you argued that you're eating soy instead of animals, then maybe it could be considered so. If you consider that the large majority of soy is produced to feed and fatten animals with so that they can be fed to humans, probably not, nor if you consider all the animals that have lost their habitat to soy farms.
Is soy wax natural?
As we've said before, soy wax isn’t natural. Soy wax doesn't grow on trees. Soy (one of soy wax's constituent materials) is natural – if it isn’t GM soy, or hasn't been planted in the place of natural rain-forest that was formed over hundreds of years. Nearly all candles contain some paraffin to help them burn, along with other material or chemicals to add or hold scents and improve burning. If someone simply tells you a manufactured product is 'natural' with no other evidence or information, we'd advise you to question their motives.
Like 'natural' 'non-toxic' is another mostly unregulated claim that gets thrown around for marketing purposes without much thought or honesty behind it. 'Non-toxic' means the product doesn't contain ingredients that have been linked to toxic responses in humans. Something can be derived outside of nature and still be non-toxic. Just because something is natural, it doesn't mean it is non-toxic. You can eat food grade paraffin and not expect a toxic response from your body. Food grade paraffin is used widely in the food industry as wrappings for cheese and other food stuffs, it's also an additive in some foods. Obviously, we do not advise eating wax, it holds no real nutritional value and in all waxes there are other additives such as scents or binders which (legally) should be labelled on every candle you buy. What is harmful however, is when people use phrases such as 'non-toxic' dishonestly, wrongly, or just to sell people something.
What wax do we use and why?
We use a mix of vegetable and mineral oil. Yes mineral oil is paraffin. The paraffin we use in non-toxic, food-grad parrafin.
For us it boils down to several things:
For us it’s a matter of what is best at the moment in time. We don’t want to jump on the band wagon shouting out repetitive environmental rhetoric. We want to use what we think is best for us and the environment.
We want to think hard about how we can limit the impact of our products based on where we are right now and the impacts of what we think those actions may be in the future.
We don’t think it would be beneficial to buy cheap GM soy wax to support bad farming practising in another country. We don’t want to increase air and sea miles importing soy to the UK and we don't want to buy a product that has potentially contributed to deforestation, loss of unique habitat and livelihoods.
At the end of the day a candle is a non essential product. We’d rather use a byproduct of gas and oil production, mixed with vegetable oil (vegetables that are not farmed on rainforests). Than use an original source product of much controversy, especially if we can’t guarantee its quality, or if we do, have to fly it across the sea to burn it at great expense.
To us, in our situation, it’s a more environmentally responsible choice right now. That’s not to say our views will change as the situation does, or as new information arises - we're always learning. What’s important is that we are going to keep on questioning things.
If you care about your products, you should too.
Candles, emissions and the Clean Air Strategy
We are a member of the British Candlemakers Federation (BCF) and follow their guidelines on candle production, emissions and safety.
You can read the BCF’s response to the 2019 Clean Air Strategy here. To summarise:
In addition to this, the European Candle Association released a statement on findings related to fine particles in candles, based on a comprehensive research report by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency which used state of the art scientific methods to test a variety of the most common candles.
Important findings included:
Our advice is to make sure that the candles you buy are well made.Ensuring that producers are members of organisations such as the BCF is a good indicator of this. .
Photo 1 by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash
Photo 2 by Jorge Illich-Gejo on Unsplash
Photo 3 by chuttersnap on Unsplash