Archive for April 25, 2012

Candle conundrums

Along with yoga, candles seem to offer a ready solution to the pressures of modern life. They promise a quick mood change: workaday to romantic, harried to harmony.

But navigating the world of candles, and making sure that you aren’t creating more problems than you are solving, can be tricky.

In the good (?) old days, candles were made of paraffin wax (unless you happened to keep bees as a hobby). Indeed, as a kid I spent many hours creating various shaped and perfumed candles from paraffin wax for my poor, long-suffering mother.

But, as you all no doubt know, paraffin is a waste product from the oil industry and is really no good for us at all. It burns `dirty’, leaving black soot and possibly formaldehyde and benzene in your house and your air. Perfumed paraffin candles are the worst: more oily, more toxic and more sooty (not to mention the cloying chemical fragrance).

What is more, cheap candles often contain lead in their wicks. The lead is supposed to help them burn more evenly. Unsurprisingly, this is not at all good for you, especially if you are young or pregnant.

For reasons known only to itself, and its dwindling number of staff scientists, Health Canada has not banned lead in candles. It does, though, offer advice about how to spot the toxin. Just untwine that wick a bit (hope the candle is not shrink-wrapped), see if there is a metallic core and, if so, rub it against a piece of paper. A grey mark indicates lead. Simple!

[A concern-assuaging aside here: Ikea candles (who hasn't bought those big bags of tea lights?) do not contain lead, though most are made from paraffin wax.]

If you want to eschew paraffin, there are three options: palm wax, soy wax and beeswax. All are marketed as eco alternatives, which is a tad misleading, to say the least.

Palm plantations in south east Asia are notorious for causing deforestation and habitat loss (see my posting on lipstick). And bringing the raw materials for candles half way across the world is not a green solution.

Soy, by contrast, can be grown domestically. But this is not always the case. If soy wax is imported from Latin America, the problems of deforestation can be just as acute as with palm oil.

Soy candles are cleaner and longer burning than paraffin wax, drips can be cleaned up with soap and water and works well with perfumes. But, on the negative side, much soy is genetically modified (doesn’t bother me hugely: others feel strongly about this) and its cultivation tends to involve lots of pesticides and insecticides as well as causing soil degradation.

Soy candles are also very soft and have a low melting point. They may go rancid and cannot be made into tapers or pillars (unless adulterated, and the suspicion is that much soy wax is, indeed, adulterated). Lastly, the wax yield of soy is low, around 10 times lower than that of palm, so you need much more land to grow the soy, to make the wax, to pour the candle, to make you relax. Not ideal.

If you do want to go the soy route, be sure to choose a local maker – In Canada there are several options including Pine Creek Hollow (Ontario) Willow Tree (Saskatchewan) or Natura (Alberta) – and ask where their soy comes from.

Last, but by no means least, there is beeswax, the longest burning and most natural wax. Fans claim it smells of honey. As an apiarist’s daughter (yes, bees as well as pigs), I think beeswax candles smell of beeswax. That is a lovely, heady smell, richer than honey, by far. The wax is usually yellow, varying with the residual impurities from honey extraction, but can become almost white when fine-filtered.

The main concern about beeswax is the price (typically high…see this post on why there is no such thing as cheap beeswax).

Bees don’t seem to mind having their wax taken away, despite the effort they put into making it. (For a fascinating description of how this miracle happens, see here.) But it does take approximately 6-8 lbs of honey to sustain a bee to make a pound of wax. This is is why beekeepers often leave the wax cells (having sliced off the top and extracted the honey) so the bees can reuse, rather than rebuild their honeycomb from year to year. This maximizes honey yield. Breeding cells are now melted down more often than they used to be due to high levels of disease amongst bees and a desire to keep everything clean, according to my father (thanks, Dad!).

Anyway, as you can see, I could go on about bees and wax, as well as pesticide use and the nightmare of bee colony collapse, forever. But I will stop.

For a good summary of the merits of different types of wax, see this site, which also sells nice beeswax candles. And if you are addicted to tea lights, remember that the aluminum holders are readily recyclable. Or if you choose the plastic ones, you can reuse them with cup-less tea light refills.


krazy for my kigos

I have a new favourite pair of shoes.

They are vegan. They are recyclable. They are comfortable. And, before you get too worried, they are snappy looking.

They are made by a US company called kigo (NB. this is a fashionably lowercase company).

The company’s commitment to ecological accountability runs deep. Shoe uppers are made from a stretchy fabric derived from post consumer plastic jugs. Adhesives are water-based, dyes are non-toxic. Packaging is at a bare minimum (they come wrapped in a thin piece of paper) and unwanted shoes can be mailed in to or dropped off at Souls4Soles depots (in the US) for on-distribution to those in need.

Two of the shoe lines (drive and flit) can also be sent back to be ground up at the end of their useful life. Sadly my edge shoes are not eligible for this program, as they are made of different materials, but maybe that will come.

If you return the shoes for reuse or recycling, you are eligible for a voucher for 25% off your next purchase. A significant incentive.

For more technical details on the shoes, I do recommend that you go direct to their website. It is very informative.

I chose the edge shoe which is a basic slip on. It is tight fitting, yet comfortable and flatters my very large feet (I would have no qualms about wearing these shoes with shorts, for example).

Overall, I really like the way my shoes both look and feel. In fact they exceeded my expectations on both these dimensions. They have little cushioning, but this does not seem to matter. I look forward to taking them on my next trip. They would be super-easy to pack and great for walking around town, light hiking, maybe even the odd game of tennis.

kigo shoes are, at heart, barefoot running shoes. I do intend to try a short run in them as I am curious about the whole barefoot trend. For now, though, I am nursing a sore achilles tendon and don’t want to take chances (I am running a 10km race next weekend). If barefoot running interests you, though, there are numerous on-line reviews of these shoes from the barefoot brigade: you can get to them through the review page of the kigo site.

Now I have persuaded you that you want a pair of kigos what else do you need to know?

They come in four styles, two of which are unisex and two more for us ladies. The drive line has a bungee closure (because these remind me of climbing shoes I reflexively feel they would be uncomfortable, unfounded prejudice, of course). flit (remember, no caps) and curve have a mary-jane type strap cross the top (for the girls). All models come in various colour-ways. Grey dominates but orange and green accents make me very happy (I have grey with green stitching, which provides interest without drawing attention to my feet).

The three final things you should know about kigo shoes are that:

  • They run small (oddly, sizing varies with the style). I am happily sporting a woman’s 12 in the edge style, which is perfect. But I never normally go above a 10 (a pretty consistent euro size 41). They make no bones about this on the site but I still made a mistake first time round.
  • Sales are on-line or through a small group of retailers both domestically and internationally. On line, there are two parallel universes: the regular sales area and the outlet sales area. Prices are about 30% lower through the outlet. So my edge shoes cost $50 through the outlet and $69 through the main site. I suspect people were finding the prices just a little too high….
  • They ship to Canada ($10 a pair), and you know how happy that makes me.


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