NATIONAL REPORT—Humans strive to make life easy. It’s this desire to do less labor that, over our existence, has driven our imagination to invent more efficient ways of completing various tasks ranging from eating to traveling to communicating. Yet our advancement is a double-edged sword. As of recently, especially within the last 100 years, we’ve begun to learn the true consequences that our developments bring with them now. We’ve seen that, in many cases, those very same innovations advancing our species are destroying the planet we live on. One such invention, and likely the most prominent one seen in day-to-day life, is disposable, single-use plastic products. Single-use plastics were revolutionary to many industries, yet some of the most prevalent usage can be seen in the world of hospitality. Items such as plastic straws, bags, and cutlery can be found in most restaurants and hotels. Beyond that, an array of luxury items, such as bottled water and travel-sized toiletries, are typically offered as a means of enhancing the guest experience.
The hospitality industry produces hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic waste each year due to its consumption-coddling offerings. Often, these companies are unable to even measure the total effect of their actions. Luckily, we’ve begun to see awareness for this issue spread, but true improvement has been slow.
One of the first items to go under the chopping block was plastic straws. That battle began almost 20 years ago, but it’s still nearly impossible to go through a day without seeing or using a straw made from plastic. Even after the efforts that have been made, studies estimate that the United States alone still uses 500,000,000 plastic straws every day, and each year over 4,000,000 pounds of them end up in oceans.
While some cities, and even entire states and countries, have passed laws banning certain single-use plastic products, we’ve also begun to see many of the world’s largest hospitality companies independently working to remove single-use plastics from their operations.
Marriott’s Move to Dispensers
For example, Marriott projects their elimination of small-sized shampoo and conditioner bottles in 1,500 North American locations will eliminate 375,000 pounds of plastic waste from their yearly operations. In a slightly different sector of the industry, Starbucks’ recently redesigned “sippy cup” lids should prevent the consumption of over 1 billion plastic straws each year.
Unfortunately, each of these individual changes makes a minuscule overall impact on the plastic dilemma we face. For many years, this has caused contestation as to whether making these changes or banning items are worth it at all, but this viewpoint fails to consider the bigger picture.
The fact that the impact made by each change is so small is a key reason as to why plastic reduction efforts must be expanded. We have a responsibility to find and address all avenues of pollution, no matter how small they may seem.
As such, there is a hugely detrimental item that has somehow gone unnoticed, even though it’s been, quite literally, right under our nose: the candle. Not only have most of the candles used commercially fallen victim to a disposable plastic design, they have a doubly harmful effect due to the fuel they use. Liquid paraffin (“kerosene”) fuel is a petroleum-derived product, meaning that it is refined from the same crude oil used to power our cars, planes, and various other combustion engine devices.
Single-use fuel cell candles, just like other single-use plastic products, have quickly become the common choice throughout the hospitality industry as they provide both efficiency and cost benefits over traditional wax candles. However, the fuel cell candle problem is one of the few cases where companies could not only massively reduce their waste, but they could further improve their time and spending efficiencies by switching to a more sustainable alternative, such as rechargeable flameless candles.
Why Fuel Cell Candles Took Over the Hospitality Industry
Businesses throughout the world of hospitality, such as restaurants, spas, and hotels, have used candles to set a mood for centuries. Candle lighting used to be a time-consuming hassle due to messy, unreliable wax candles.
The extra care required gave candles an air of luxury, and they still carry that luxurious ambiance today. If you spend the day at a top-rated spa or go to dinner at a high-end steakhouse, you will likely find yourself surrounded by the soft, flickering glow of candles.
The invention of the disposable fuel cell candle brought with it both time and cost savings benefits. Fuel cell candles burn longer, more consistently, and more efficiently than standard wax candles by utilizing liquid paraffin wax, and they also provide the convenience of an “easy to dispose” PET plastic shell.
While fuel cells come in a variety of sizes, the 8- and 12-hour variants are the most popular within the hospitality sector. These burn time ratings provide an easy way for businesses to plan both when to refresh each candle and how much to budget for candles each month.
When first released, disposable fuel cell candles were considered a revolutionary new tool because they provided all the atmospheric benefits of a candle with massive improvements to efficiency. One would just simply need to light, burn, then toss. As with many things in life, its beautifully simplistic design distracted from the enormous wastes it would bring in its wake.
Today, most of the candles you see being used commercially will be disposable fuel cell candles. In the industry that never rests, the ability to handle even the smallest tasks in less time is worth its weight in gold, even if it involves throwing out some more plastic. Yet given how tiny these candles are, how much of an impact could they really have?
Shedding Light on the True Impact of Fuel Cell Candles
Research on commercial candle usage is almost non-existent, but to try and quantify this issue, let’s analyze a common place we find candles within hospitality: restaurants.
Most restaurants light their candles when the sun starts to set, or once their dinner shift starts, and let them burn until they close. This means that, on the average day, a restaurant using candles will burn them for 6 to 8 hours (from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m. or midnight).
How many candles per day does this translate to? Restaurants follow a few “golden rules” when it comes to design. In full-service restaurants, there is typically one seat for every 15 feet of floor space in the front of house. Additionally, about 60 percent of a restaurant’s overall square footage will be devoted to the dining area, with the remaining 40 percent of floor space for the kitchen.
In a national poll by restaurantowners.com, it was reported that the average restaurant has about 1,050 square feet of kitchen space. Referencing the 60/40 rule, we can project an average dining area of 1,575 square feet. This means that, on average there are 105 seats at a full-service restaurant, excluding the bar.
Lastly, considering your average table seats four, we can estimate the typical full-service restaurant to have 26 tables. If we factor in a few extra candles—for use at the bar or as accents to the host stand, walls, or bathrooms—we can say that in most cases, a restaurant using fuel cell candles should burn through approximately 36 candles per day.
A standard sized 8-hour fuel cell is only 1.5 inches tall and 1.5 inches in diameter, giving it a volume of 2.65 cubic inches. However, this means that, at a rate of 36 candles per day, the average restaurant is producing over 20 cubic feet of plastic waste each year from candle use.
For reference, twenty cubic feet is about the size of an average household refrigerator/freezer combo. As of 2018, there were 660,755 restaurants in the United States. If we subtract the 247,191 fast food restaurants included in that number, there are 413,564 dining venues in the United States alone that might use candles. In an effort to remain conservative, let’s say that, of all the non-fast-food restaurants, just 10 percent use candles in their operations. Those 41,356 restaurants would produce over 800,000 cubic feet of waste each year—enough to fill almost 500 40-foot school buses (volume of approximately 1,700 cubic feet). Remember, these numbers are based on conservative estimates; it’s likely the real impact is much greater.
A Comparison with Straws
To compare, let’s go back to the current focus of the plastic reduction movement: plastic straws. As mentioned earlier, the United States is currently using over 500,000,000 plastic straws each day. With a volume of about 0.75 cubic inches, this means that every day we’re producing enough waste from plastic straws to fill over 125 school buses. When looking at this estimate versus the estimate of fuel cell candle waste we just formulated, fuel cell candles may seem like an insignificant factor.
Though, considering the rate we are currently polluting our planet, it is not logical to deny a problem simply because it may not be the largest contributing factor. Irrespective of whether fuel cell candles produce 800,000 cubic feet or 80,000,000 cubic feet of plastic waste per year, they are an issue we need to address. We may not yet fully understand how widespread this problem is, but nevertheless, we can definitively identify it as problem.
Restaurants are just one of dozens of hospitality businesses that use fuel cell candles, and as such, the size scope of this issue is hard to quantify. Think of all the candles you’ve seen in bars, nightclubs, and casinos. Most country clubs, spas, and yoga studios use them to provide a warm and welcoming ambiance, too. In 2018, there were 2.2 million weddings in the United States; when was the last time you went to a wedding that didn’t feature candles anywhere?
Plastics, specifically those made from polyethylene terephthalate (“PET” or “PETE”), are one of humanity’s greatest advancements, as well as one of its largest downfalls. PET has become one of the most widely used packaging materials in the world due to its versatility, strength, and low-cost. While PET is easy and efficient to recycle, only 9.5 percent of the plastics produced since the 1950s have been returned for reprocessing or reuse. Currently, global plastic production is about 300,000,000 tons annually.
Sadly, plastic is only part of the problem with fuel cell candles, for they burn kerosene, a petroleum-derived fuel. Unlike candles made from natural substances, such as animal fats or plant-based oils, burning fuel cell candles is not a carbon-neutral activity. While a candle made from palm oil will release carbon that was already in the atmosphere and processed by a plant, kerosene is refined from petroleum, a fossil fuel, which stores carbon within the Earth.
This means that burning fuel cell candles releases carbon, along with many other chemicals, back into the atmosphere. In effect, the increased use of fuel cell candles plays a role in rising carbon dioxide levels. It may not be as influential a role as automobiles, but in no way should it be considered environmentally friendly.
A Source of Carcinogens
In regard to the other chemicals candles release, a 2004 study by researchers at Maastricht University observed high levels of polycyclic hydrocarbons in churches. Upon digging further into their discovery, it was found that the heightened levels of these carcinogens were directly correlated to the use of paraffin (kerosene) based candles.
A 2009 study at South Carolina State University identified some of the other fumes produced by paraffin candles, such as toluene and benzene. These chemicals have been proven to increase chances of developing asthma or even cancer. While kerosene burns “clean,” that is, with no smoke or scent, it’s releasing the same particulate pollution you would find coming out of a car’s tailpipes.
One of the main reasons the hospitality industry is slow to transition away from single-use plastic items is that, typically, it is more expensive to use sustainable materials and services, so the only benefit realized is an improved image. In the end, the goal of any company is to turn a profit. Therefore, many businesses in hospitality do not employ a recycling policy. To reference restaurants again, estimates suggest that only 60 percent have some form of a recycling program.
The cost of using recycling services is usually the largest hurdle to overcome, not considering the time spent keeping staff trained on recycling policies. Furthermore, with respect to fuel cell candles, paying for recycling services essentially eliminates any cost benefit they have over wax candles due to the increased disposal costs.
The Benefits of Flameless Candle Systems
By integrating rechargeable flameless candles, hospitality companies have a possible solution that allows them to both eliminate the single-use plastic item and increase their bottom line. Once thought of as a tacky accent piece, there are now flameless candle systems that look nearly identical to a real flame and can last over five years with every day use.
Fuel cell candles are still a consumable item, which means that businesses must constantly purchase new candles, typically on a weekly or monthly basis. Commercial-grade rechargeable flameless candle systems would be considered a fixed-asset, similar to furniture or silverware, because no part of them requires replacement throughout their multi-year operational lifespan.
This benefits the company, for they can terminate their recurrent candle costs. Also, rechargeable flameless candle systems produce no waste during their effective life. Rechargeable flameless candles are one of a few rare cases where companies are financially motivated to make the more sustainable choice.
To fully understand the good that could be brought through a transition to flameless candles, let’s do cost savings and waste reduction analyses of one of America’s most well-known restaurant chains, Red Lobster.
One Company’s Impact: Red Lobster
Red Lobster was sold by Darden Restaurants to Golden Gate Capital in 2014. It is the largest seafood restaurant in the world with over 700 locations just in the United States. Considering the levels of plastic waste entering the oceans each year, and the extremely detrimental effect that plastic has on oceanic ecosystems, it would be logical for Red Lobster to take an interest in protecting the very environment the food it serves comes from.
The company is currently rolling out an interior redesign with the goal of bringing a more refreshed, refined look to their restaurants. One of the features of that redesign is a candle at every table and booth. While the number of tables at each location will vary, the average Red Lobster is slightly larger than the average restaurant (which, as we determined, uses about 36 candles) so let’s build our estimate based on an average of 48 candles per location across 700 locations.
We can use the same calculations we made earlier to determine how much plastic waste each location will be producing if using fuel cell candles.
With each of the 700 locations producing 26.87 cubic feet of plastic waste from candles, that means that, in total, Red Lobster’s U.S. locations make over 18,800 cubic feet of fuel cell candle waste each year—enough to fill more than 11 school buses. While the physical waste produced by fuel cells is smaller than that of phasing out plastic straws, we must remember that this change would also stop the consumption of over 12,250,000 candles worth of fossil fuel.
Unfortunately, this alone is not enough to convince a multi-billion dollar company to switch to a more sustainable alternative. When it comes to the dollars and cents of it, how much would they save in expenses by choosing flameless candles over fuel cells?
Based on current bulk pricing, a single 8-hour fuel cell costs about $0.34. Using the number of candles consumed per location, along with the total number of locations, we can figure out Red Lobster’s current financial burden from candle lighting.
Comparatively, an industrial-grade rechargeable tea light system costs roughly $800 for every 24 candles with their charging hardware. If each Red Lobster utilizes 48 candles, we can project an initial investment of $1,600 per location, or about $1,120,000 across the whole company. Considering that these industrial-grade systems last, in many cases, over five years, we can project the total gain the company would realize from their investment.
Over the course of these five years, we can see that the company could save almost $20,000,000 by transitioning to rechargeable flameless candles. With just one modification to their operations, Red Lobster would be able to reduce both their annual plastic waste and fossil fuel consumption in addition to improving both their public image and net profit.
We Cannot Afford to Ignore the Small Things
The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is a grim reminder of the reckless, endless consumption of our species. Formed by the currents and tides of the oceans, this literal floating island of trash currently covers over 615,000 square miles of ocean—an area three times the size of France. We’re at a point where we can’t afford to keep making excuses. It simply does not make sense to try and brush something under the rug, or in this case, toss it out to sea, because it’s “not the biggest issue at hand.” We have the responsibility to make any positive change we can while we still have the chance to reverse the damage we have caused.
There is much the hospitality industry can do, from eliminating plastic straws to incorporating larger toiletry dispensers to swapping to rechargeable candles, and more. Yet this issue is bigger than just hospitality, in fact, it’s even bigger than humanity itself.
While projects such as the Ocean Clean-Up are focused on large-scale efforts to fix our plastic problem, we as consumers, employees, and business owners need to make our own small efforts to do the right thing. As the adage goes, “many hands make light work,” and while many hands, in this case, will help accelerate our move in the right direction, our work should not be considered light.
We need to think of not just our planet, but our future planet in 100 years, 1,000 years, and 10,000 years. We need to kick the selfish viewpoint we each carry and make decisions for the good of our species. We need to attack these issues head-on with the goal of not just reducing our waste but reversing it. The world keeps growing, so even if our rate of pollution per person falls, our wastes each year will continue to get larger.
Do what you can, regardless of how insignificant it may feel. We must evolve from our current ways; it is truly a matter of life and death.
This article was republished from the Amazing Flameless Candle blog.