Since matches are pretty small, you might not have thought much about their environmental impact.
The fact that they’re single-use items is concerning, and there are some environmental concerns about matchstick production.
Here’s everything you need to know about the environmental impact of matches.
1. How Do Matches Affect the Environment?
Matches are single-use items. Once the match has been ignited, you cannot light it again.
So there is a constant demand to produce new matches, which requires energy and resources, which is unsustainable.
One of the biggest ways matches affect the environment is by sourcing wood.
Wood is a renewable resource, so at first glance, matches appear to be quite sustainable.
The downside is that although wood is renewable, trees take a very long time to mature.
Even softwood trees, which matches are commonly made from, can take up to four decades to mature.
Approximately one million matches can be manufactured using the wood from a standard aspen tree.
This sounds like a huge amount for only one tree, as one person is unlikely to use that many matches in their lifetime, but it can add up when you think about how many people use matches regularly.
In 2020, the total matchstick trade was $173 million, making them the 3666th most traded product in the world.
However, they are decreasing in popularity, as the figure was $178 million in 2019.
Matches also contain other ingredients aside from wood.
The wooden stick is often coated in paraffin wax, which is sourced from petroleum and ammonium phosphate.
The tip is often a blend of powdered glass and glue, potassium chlorate, sulfur, and antimony trisulfide.
The striking surface on a matchstick box is made from red phosphorus, which is sourced via mining.
Research found that prolonged exposure to potassium chloride can be fatal for marine life, but it’s not clear if potassium chlorate has the same effect.
There is little research on the compounds potentially released from burning matches.
With that said, sulfur can form sulfur dioxide when burned.
In the air, this compound can lead to the formation of sulfuric acid, which is in acid rain.
However, unlike candles or cigarettes, matches only burn for a few seconds to light something else, so the amount of sulfur dioxide a single match would emit is likely to be minimal.
While antimony trisulfide can cause air pollution, again, it is not clear how much would be emitted from burning a single match.
There are also the carbon footprints and water footprints from matchstick production to consider.
The water footprint for making one carton of matchsticks is approximately 0.265 m3.
It takes 715,860 megajoules to create a carton of matchsticks, which is a cause of concern as most of this energy use is from fossil fuels.
Matchstick production, from transport to sourcing the materials and production, was also linked with freshwater aquatic ecotoxicity and terrestrial ecotoxicity.
While the total carbon footprint for a carton of matches developed in Pakistan in 2019 and 2020 was 43.69 kg CO2e, this figure dropped to approximately 5.35 kg of CO2e per carton when the carbon stored in wood was removed from the figure.
This is because trees sequester carbon dioxide during their lifespan and release it when burnt or decaying, so it is often seen as carbon neutral.
However, this does not mean burning wood is good for the environment, as it immediately releases the accumulated CO2 back into the air.
This means that burning wood may actually release more CO2 emissions than natural gas and coal.
2. Are Matches Sustainable?
Since matches are made from renewable materials, they are somewhat sustainable.
Since it requires only one tree to make a million matches, they might not be the biggest culprit when it comes to deforestation.
However, materials used in matchsticks, like paraffin wax, can still be linked to deforestation and pollution due to mining.
You can now find bamboo matches that are better for the environment than wooden matches.
Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in the world, so it is much easier to replenish than wood.
3. Are Matches Biodegradable?
Since wood is biodegradable, some kinds of matches are biodegradable.
As mentioned earlier, sometimes the wood is coated in paraffin wax which is not biodegradable.
So, ensure the matches are plain wood matches before putting them in a compost bin.
You should also remove the tip of the match, as some of the glass, glue, and other compounds may still be present.
These are not biodegradable.
4. Are Matches Toxic?
Matches may be toxic.
Research found that matchstick industry workers experienced health issues and DNA damage, which can increase the risk of cancer.
Some of this may be due to exposure to potassium chlorate and the red phosphorous striking surface on the box, as these compounds are associated with inflammation, nausea, anemia, coma, jaundice, kidney and liver damage, and more.
Phosphorus oxide is also a component of matchstick production associated with slow wound healing, jaundice, vomiting, irritation, and more.
The phosphine gas emitted due to a red phosphorus reaction can cause chest pain and shortness of breath.
With that said, the average person is not going to be exposed to the same concentrations of these compounds as matchstick industry workers and is unlikely to experience these effects.
There was also a case of a man developing chronic interstitial nephritis after consuming matchsticks, but again, the average person is extremely unlikely to experience this.
However, this does illustrate how important it is to dispose of matches carefully to ensure animals do not consume them.
5. Are Matches More Eco-Friendly than Lighters?
Matches do not seem to be much more eco-friendly than lighters.
Matches are a single-use item, but most lighters, except notably Zippo, are disposable, so they don’t last particularly long either.
So, there is a regular demand for both matches and lighters, which requires energy and resources.
An average lighter also releases about 0.25g of carbon dioxide per minute used.
It is unclear how much carbon dioxide would be emitted from burning a match for the same length of time.
With that said, most people will not burn a lighter or a match for a minute straight.
Lighters can be made from metal, plastic, or even glass. None of these materials are renewable.
Plus, how they are sourced can be detrimental to the environment.
Plastic and metal are sourced via mining, which releases emissions while also contributing to deforestation and soil erosion.
Although sand seems to be in abundance, it is a finite resource, making glass actually non-renewable.
Not to mention, glass production itself is highly polluting.
As the sand is heated to extremely high temperatures, glass production releases 95 billion kg (95 million tonnes) of CO2 each year.
With that said, you can also find glass in matchsticks, which is one reason why they’re not much greener.
Although these might be recyclable materials, lighters and matches cannot be recycled.
This is because recycling facilities will not have the means to process these materials in this form, and any remaining lighter fluid in a lighter can act as a fire hazard.
So sooner or later, all lighters and matches go to waste.
As mentioned earlier, while wood is biodegradable, matchsticks might not be as biodegradable as customers believe due to the presence of paraffin wax.
6. How to Dispose of Matches Properly
The most important thing when disposing of matches is to ensure they are completely burnt out and cooled down; otherwise, they can become a fire hazard.
If you’re disposing of an unused match, it’s advised to soak it in water first. This is to ensure the match does not catch on anything later on and start a fire.
The wooden base of the match can go in a compost bin as long as it is not coated in paraffin wax or any other non-biodegradable materials.
Otherwise, you can put your matches in a general waste bin.