The great soy debate – which wax do you use?

paraffin or soy waxWith so many different types of candles out there it is sometimes difficult to know what is best. Do you choose Soy or Paraffin or something else entirely?

Everywhere we go there is a campaign to re-cycle and reuse, so 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? 

When researching this I came across many websites with conflicting views. However I did notice one thing – Most of them gave no references whatsover and had clearly done no research except to put forward their own views or parrot others . Now I’m not saying that I am completely unbiased, but I like to think that I ask a lot of questions (as my partner will attest too).

We often get asked about the waxes that are used in Swazi Candles. Consumers are more conscious these days which is great. Soy wax is definitely on trend right now; it is 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.
The take away is that both soy and paraffin wax have benefits IF sourced from a reputable company who use high quality ingredients and are transparent about where they come from. Neither is necessarily more eco-friendly then the other.

  • Just because it says ‘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. You could easily say that paraffin wax is ‘natural’ as it comes from decayed plant and animal material.
  • 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. In fact, Swazi Candles now even has a range of candles created from old wax!
  • 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. In fact, soy wax is very soft so it is very difficult to make anything other then container candles without adding lots of additives (like paraffin).
  • 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.And last but not least: The amazing animals, stunning patterns, beautiful glow and re-usable nature of the larger candles would just not be possible with soy as the wax is too soft.

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 a great page of information on Soy and Soy production. 

Image by Julio César García from Pixabay 

The soy market

Since the 1950’s soy production has increased 15 times over, 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.

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:

  • European agricultural policy makes tariffs on animal feed low, making soy meal relatively cheap to import. 
  • The ban on processed animal proteins has highlighted soy as an alternative.
  • The growth of aquaculture has increased demand for soy based fish feed.
  • The growth of the biofuel market has increased demand of soy for biodiesel.
  • Reduced restrictions on trade after the formation of the World Trade Organisation has made soy cheaper to import.
  • Soy producers, users and vendors have been largely un-reigned in marketing the environmental, ethical and ecological benefits of soy, often on an unfounded basis.

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

Deforestation is having a devastating impact in South America. Much of it to grow crops for animal feed.
Picture attributed to:

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.

  • Soy wax isn’t natural. Soy 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.
  • Natural doesn’t mean sustainable – not if it’s grown in monocultures on cut down rain-forests on continually decreasing quality soil and at the expense of global water tables. 
  • To be labelled as a pure soy candle, it only has to be 51% soy. Even ‘100% soy’ candles have to be processed with a small amount of paraffin.

Paraffin wax production

Paraffin is made from slack wax, which is a mixture of oil and wax, a byproduct from the refining of lubricating oil.

The first step in making paraffin wax is to remove the oil from the slack wax. The oil is separated by crystallization. Most commonly, the slack wax is heated, mixed with one or more solvents such as a ketone and then cooled. As it cools, wax crystallizes out of the solution, leaving only oil. This mixture is filtered into two streams: solid (wax plus some solvent) and liquid (oil and solvent). After the solvent is recovered by distillation, the resulting products are called “product wax” and “foots oil”.

The lower the percentage of oil in the wax, the more refined it is considered (semi-refined versus fully refined).

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. And a statement from the European Candle Association.

Does soy wax burn longer?

Our candles have an average 45 hour burn time, (for the standard 9cm pillar) 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. Not only that but because of the hard exterior of these candles they can be re-used if looked after properly.

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.

Fair trade soy candles
Gone Rural Soy Candles

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. 

What wax do we use and why?

We use a mix of vegetable and mineral oil. Yes mineral oil is paraffin. 
For us it boils down to several things:

  • Can we source ethically produced soy locally at a reasonable cost? No. 
  • Can we source waste to re-use in our products? Yes. 
  • Are fossil fuels going to stop being used anytime soon? No – though we’d sure love them to be.
  • How can we get more out of fossil fuel waste? Aside from reducing it, by re-using it. 
  • Can we use soy to make our signature patterned animals and re-usable pillars? No, not without putting in so many other ingredients as to make it pointless.
Swazi candles
The amazing patterns on Swazi Candles

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.

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.

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. What’s important is that we are going to keep on questioning things. 

Its been a busy year

I can’t believe  it has been so long since my last post! This year has just flown along.

Never fear though – We are still here!

It’s been a very busy year for me personally so the social profile of Karakorum has been keeping a rather low profile! However that doesn’t mean that Karakorum hasn’t been hard at work.

We have been making contacts and looking into new suppliers and engrossed in future planning. Sustainability and ethics at the top of our agenda as usual, which always adds an extra dimension to sourcing products. I’m planning a trip or two to Central Asia next year to talk to producers about some crafts that I have had my eye on since we cycled through there 4 years ago.

I’ve been very happily following and taking inspiration some of the amazing shops across the pond in the United States that stock ethical goods such as KAZI Goods and Ten Thousand Villages

While we continue to work with with Swazi Candles and Gone Rural we are hoping to add a few more lines in the near future. See below for a sneak peak of what will be in stock soon.

We will also be at a few Christmas markets so don’t forget to check our events page to see if we will be in a town near you soon. The Victorian market in Gloucester (which is a grand event) is the biggest one so look out for me swishing around in some Victorian finery and selling for social good. Let’s hope the this Xmas brings some fine if wintry weather.

recycled metal mirror

ethical rag rug