Smoke and mirrors: Small lighters leave big impact

Smoker or nonsmoker, disposable cigarette lighters are as much a part of daily life as using a toothbrush. Smokers use them for the obvious reason and nonsmokers will keep them on hand if, for no other reason, than to light candles.

Disposable lighters come in all colors and sport an endless variety of themes encouraging self expression from representing our zodiac symbol, a favorite rock band, a favorite automobile brand, and so on. These pocket lighters are found to be handy for all sorts of uses and by all sorts of people from a restaurant worker to a boy scout.

On first examination, disposable lighters seem quite innocuous; however, there is a global, ecological cost to this colorful convenience that has woven itself so deeply into our social environment.

Founded in France in 1945, the Bic Company is the largest manufacturer of disposable lighters in the world. Its classic shape has not changed since 1972 and it is on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture and Design.

Bic manufactures upwards of 2 billion lighters annually, counts for 50% of world sales of disposable lighters and dominates over 73% of the US market in. Its closest competitor here in the US is Calico Brands (Scripto Tokai) of Ontario, CA with 6.5% of the US market.

According to Convenience Store and Fuel News, of the 371,172,032 disposable lighters sold in convenience stores and fuel stations across America during 2014, 315,283,141 were manufactured by Bic and 3,360,627 by Calico.

The number of disposable lighters manufactured by just these two companies is staggering from an ecological impact point of view.

Bic says that its lighters are good for 3,000 lights; however, there seems to be a general public consensus that this number of lights has decreased significantly over the years. This practice would guarantee increased production during the decline of smoking.

Disposable lighters contain a number of chemicals that are dangerous to the environment when discarded. Some of these chemicals are the raw materials used to make the various parts of the lighter including petroleum products, formaldehyde, sulfuric acid, flint (ferrocerium) and butane gas to name a few.

Much of the world’s trash is burned; especially in third world areas. Disposable lighters produce toxic gasses when burned in trash.

When the thermoplastic polyoxymetnylene (POM) that is used to form the stiff casing of a disposable lighter is exposed to chemicals such as chlorine, strong acids, and alkaline it can degrade POM and release formaldehyde. Many of these chemicals known to degrade POM are readily available in landfills.

The flint, or ferrocerium (a blend of 5 metals that produces an excellent spark), in disposable lighters degrades into a volatile powder which is extremely flammable.

In marine areas such as the Midway Atoll, disposable lighters are responsible for the death of birds and fish that mistake them for food. According to Rachel Pierce and Coral Cruey in their “Life Cycle Assessment of a Bic Lighter," Laysan Albatross mistake these items as food, then feed them to their chicks. In either adult or chick, the object can choke, cut, poison, cause dehydration, and death from malnutrition because their internal systems are suppressed.”

During the White House announcement for the Marine Debris Initiative in 2007, Former first Lady Laura Bush noted that, “We became very fond of these little albatross, but we also saw the carcasses of a lot of infants who had ingested cigarette lighters. This could be a cigarette lighter somebody dropped on a street somewhere in the United States and it slowly washed through the drains out into the oceans and then finally ended up at the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.”

Currently, there is little effort out there for the recycling of disposable lighters.

Bic is also one of the largest producers of writing pens in the world. According to, in 2011, Bic teamed up with an organization called Terracycle and launched, “The first program for collecting and recycling writing instruments in France.” This recycling effort involves civic organizations collecting used writing instruments, Bic or any other brand. Bic pays, “2 Euro cents per writing instrument collected” with the proceeds, “donated to a charity or not for profit chosen by the organization responsible for the collection or, in the case of schools, the money will be donated directly to the school in order to finance a future educational project.”

It is a small beginning for a much larger ecological problem created by a company that is primarily responsible for manufacturing products on a global scale that are, by design, intended to be discarded.

Some of the Eco-responsibility lies with those who purchase disposable lighters and with governments that do not recognize the ecological problem disposable lighters pose.

Many states have recognized a similar problem with disposable cans and bottles and have instituted programs where consumers can return them for cash.

Responsible manufacturers and retail organizations could come together and create a sustainability program for disposable lighters that would encourage consumers to recycle them instead sending them to landfills or tossing them out the window of their car.

Disposable lighters could be phased out of existence through legislation forcing companies such as Bic and Calico to produce only reusable lighters. This could be a boon for retailers as customers would return to purchase butane and flints.