Tuesday 16 August 2011

Let there be candle light

It’s winter, it’s getting dark early and that’s a good excuse to burn candles – beeswax* of course, and made by Northern Light. Love my new Northern Light beeswax candles. I ordered them online, and a couple of days later a little box of goodness arrived on my doorstep. It’s incredible the lengths these people go to, to be sustainable. The packaging is all post-consumer waste paper, printed with soy-based inks, the boxes are designed to be folded so there’s no need for toxic glue, and they’re sealed with paper tape.

Inside, I found a little hand-written note (on recycled paper of course) welcoming me as a new customer, and a very welcome gift: a “Calmer Light” poured and packed by Carmelite nuns with a message on the bottom that you can only read when the candle has been burning long enough to make the wax transparent: “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly”. See what I mean? The candles themselves exude a sweet, honey scent and a golden glow. 

Northern Light’s commitment to sustainable manufacture is impressive, to say the least. For instance: the wax is melted using a heater that runs on macadamia nut shells instead of electricity, rainwater is used instead of chlorinated town water and the studio (it can hardly be called a “factory” situated as it is in the lush hinterland of northern NSW) is designed to maximise natural light, wind and rainwater for heating and cooling. 

The wax-melting room even has a glass roof, to reduce the power required to keep the wax molten (it can get up to 50ÂșC in there in summer), thereby cutting carbon emissions. Naturally, all their candles are made using organically certified, Australian beeswax – “the cleanest, purest beeswax you can buy” – and cotton wicks.

The man behind all this sustainable candle-making is Jeffrey Gibbs, who has been involved in beekeeping for over 30 years. I called Jeffrey this afternoon with a few practical questions – like: what can you do with leftover beeswax, and are the tin wick-stands recyclable? – which he was happy to answer (see below, and yes) before the conversation veered onto more esoteric subjects. “There’s nothing better in the world than living with peace in your heart and doing something you love,” he said at one point. It was a breath of fresh, Byron Bay air in my Sydney afternoon.

Northern Light made the world’s first beeswax tealights, in 1992, and were also the first to put tealights into reusable, recycled Australian tin cups, instead of the throwaway aluminium cups that come with most tealights. Now they're the world’s largest producer of beeswax candles, making 650-700,000 tealights a year, with just seven staff. 

Their candles have lit up post-tsunami Japan, Ferrari family functions in Italy, Rae’s on Watego’s (a luxury lodge at Byron Bay), even the Vatican; 25,000 Northern Light candles illuminated the Pope’s World Youth Day event in Sydney in 2008.

Here are 7 more beeswax-related things I learned today:
1. Before World War I, bumble bees were called “humble bees”; even Charles Darwin called them that in The Origin of Species, in 1859.

2. Australian native bees don’t produce much wax, traditionally used to make the mouthpieces of didgeridoos in northern Australia. Northern Light’s bees are Italian.

3. The average worker bee has a lifespan of 4-5 weeks. 

4. Beeswax is the cap that seals the honeycomb chamber in which bees put their honey. Sealed like this, honey can last for 1000 years.

5. Candle-makers were once called "chandlers". 

6. Tealight wicks have 24-strand wicks; large cathedral candles have 96-strand wicks (and you thought thread-counts were just for bed linen).

7. Leftover beeswax can be melted, strained through a cloth bag and scented with tea tree oil to make a waterproof shoe polish. Who knew?

Thank you, Northern Light, and thank you, bees.

*Beeswax candles, for the uninitiated, are the only non-polluting, good-for-you-and-the-environment candle. They’re better than paraffin candles (which emit, cough splutter, toxic fumes because they’re made from petroleum), better than palm oil candles (which are causing deforestation on a massive scale in places like Indonesia and Borneo, the last bastions of the endangered orangutan and Sumatran tiger) and better than soy candles (the soy is often genetically modified and has to be converted into a wax which is energy intensive and involves adding all sorts of nasties).


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