I'm used to burning matches to ignite my incense.

What is the least environmentally damaging way to start a fire ? to use matches or a lighter ? something else ?

Of course a lighter would use natural gas (butane or propane) and consume plastics - I don't know what the firestone is made of. I think plastic lighter could be refillable, but honestly, I have never refilled them, I don't even know how to.

Maybe I could consider something like a zippo, refillable, but it's using gasoil derivated spirits to work.

On the contrary matches use sulfur things, wood, and cardboard for the box. But I remember also hearing that the matter on the side of the box (that fire the matches up) was rather toxic.

Any idea ?

  • I have re-phrased the question according your wording, so as to reflect the way of questionning any means of living/needing/consuming... Indeed the point you focus on is even more general. – Stephane Rolland May 1 '13 at 13:42

It is going to depend on the size of fire you need. If you need a camp or bonfire, then using a drill and plough method as described here is probably your best bet. It can be done with scrap wood and the amount of waste is negligible. Sure it takes a lot of effort, but most of us can use extra the calorie burn.

If you just need a small fire, like for lighting incense or a candle, then not only is it a lot of work, but it is a huge waste. A cardboard match is probably going to come in first since it has a smaller waste footprint. Wooden matches should come next. A lighter is going be the least friendly since they burn hydrocarbons and most of them are byproducts of natural gas/oil refinement. If you use plastic then then you have more waste that is not recyclable. The refillable lighters like Zippos tend to waste a lot of fuel. So for small fires, matches are the way to go. As for the tip, it's usually sulfur based, and sulfur is the byproduct of many processes, and the small amounts mean that in limited use there is little danger of toxicity. And the strike strip is usually basically fine grit sand paper. Nothing too dangerous there.


I think Fire Pistons offer probably the best balance of features. Basically little more than a piston inside a cylinder which, when struck, compresses and heats the air inside the cylinder to such an extent that it ignites a small amount of tinder at the bottom of the cylinder — that becomes an ember that can then be removed and used to start the fire proper.

Fire Piston

You can make one yourself out of scrap materials. You can harvest or make the tinder from scrap material for free. About the only thing that is difficult to make yourself is the o-ring (seal), but they are tiny, last ages, easy to source, and ridiculously cheap to replace.

Here's a video of a Fire Piston made from a clear tube and shot in slow motion so you can see how it works in detail:


And here's more of a How To:


Whilst most Fire Pistons are used in a survival/camping-type scenario, it would be easy for a 'logical mind' to craft a 'stationary fire-lighting station' for use indoors that eliminates the whole 'blowing into the tinder pile' process and lets the ember evolve into a flame within a typical wood heater.

  • 1
    I don't know if this is the right answer but it is cool. – Jean-Paul Calderone Apr 26 at 23:56

For "sustainable" and "not environmentally damaging", a good heuristic is (in my view) that the solution matches the following conditions:

  1. consumes no materials (so, nothing has to be refilled, and nothing has to be permanently produced and transported to keep the solution working)

  2. does not wear out or break (in this case the initial environmental costs of producing the solution are the only environmental costs, distributed over an infinite time)

  3. can be repaired with little resources when broken (because eventually, everything breaks)

Of course that's just the theory. Such a device might still become lost, stolen, burn in a wildfire or similar, so the initial environmental costs still matter.

But it's a heuristic. For starting a fire, it leads to two types of devices:

Commercially sold devices use batteries, which wear out eventually. But technically, it is easily possible to create a lighter that is powered with a cable from an electrical socket, or (to have a mobile version) that stores electricity in a supercapacitor. Supercaps do not wear out, in contrast to batteries. I am not aware of commercial devices using such a solution, though. Also I can't serve with an assessment of the minimum lifetime of such a device to be less environmentally damaging than just using matches.


I'd say a refillable lighter using butane would be close to ideal. Use some old newspapers to help set the wood to fire, instead of trying to ignite wood directly with a lighter. If it runs out of butane, refill it. If it breaks, dispose of it properly. Some might suggest that butane is made from non-renewable resources. That's not an issue. The lighter is used only for starting a fire, with the fire itself using some other fuels like wood, that are ideally sustainable and renewable.

If you absolutely loathe plastic and butane because they are made from non-renewable resources, I have some good news for you:

  • Butane can be made from trees
  • Even plastics can be made from trees!

The little amount of plastics and butane needed is so trivial that if every lighter made in this planet was made from trees, the amount of forest used would be minuscule. (In comparison, if all gasoline and diesel used in cars and heavy trucks was made from trees, we would soon run out of forest.)

Unfortunately, you cannot purchase butane or plastics made from trees today, because the demand for such a niche product would be low in bulk quantities, and even lower when specifically used to make lighters. So I don't think we'll soon see 100% eco-friendly lighters that use only butane and plastics made from sustainably managed forests.

I'd say the environmental impact of fire is mainly caused by:

  • The fuel being used, is it sustainable, is it renewable?
  • The particulate matter produced by the fire that can actually be a real issue in densely populated areas even if the fuel is sustainable and renewable

Just consider how much wood a fire needs, and how little butane is used by the lighter.

If you want to minimize the environmental impacts of you starting a fire, turn your attention to the main fuel of the fire and forget the environmental impact of the fire-starting method.


The most sustainable method would be with a sparking striker type fire-starter.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Welcome to Sustainable Living! Can you provide some more detail on what exactly this is, or perhaps a picture of how it works? – LShaver Apr 23 at 14:38

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