Plastic Lighters

Lighters Recovered from Puget Sound Beaches

by Rebecca Rockefeller

I’m the Chief Research Officer of Trash Backwards, and I’m continually discovering exactly what my title means…A few weeks ago it meant that I spent my Saturday night researching one of the Very Big Things of human history: Fire, and how to start one. Specifically, how to start a fire without a single-use plastic lighter. In order to do this, I’ve been rediscovering some old-fashioned ways to set things aflame.

Why am I doing this? Because we have been finding plastic lighters during our regular plastic pollution search and rescue missions to beaches, ditches, and parking lots. They’re so common a part of the plastic pollution in our oceans, they rate their own articles like this PDF from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

For a truly illuminating look at single-use plastic lighters, visit artist Willis Elkins’ LESS Lighter Log. Willis collected, mapped, and photographed the 1,946 plastic lighters he and a team found at 47 waterfront spots throughout the five New York City boroughs between August, 2010 and May, 2011.

We’ve become addicted to single-use plastic lighters, and I wanted to know what we can use instead to break this addiction – Plastic lighters are not doing us any good.  I looked for options less plastic and I found them, from mythical to practical.

Single-use plastic lighters recovered from the streets and beaches of the Kitsap Peninsula, WA, photo by Liesl Clark

REDUCE YOUR USE – Alternatives to single-use plastic lighters:

Better than a single use lighter: a DIY travel kit of wooden matches, sandpaper, and reused aluminum foil in an empty candy tin held closed by a salvaged rubber band.

  • Remember matches? They’re still around, and a bit better than ever. Diamond has a line of matches made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified sustainable wood, and you can put an empty dental floss container, Tic Tac box, or tin of mints to work as a travel case; tuck in a small piece of sandpaper for striking, and you’re all set.
  • Make your own waterproof matches if you live in a wet climate like mine – One viewing of this video tutorial and you’ll be ready to Do It Yourself. Dip the match head and a bit of the stem below it into the melted pool of wax in a candle (blow the flame out before dipping), let dry. When you’re ready to light things up, use your thumbnail to gently scrape off the bulk of the wax. I tested this and yes, it works.
  • Keep a handful of dry spaghetti noodles near your matches. While I was looking up the history of matches, I came across multiple references to a simply brilliant tip: The next time you need to light a candle that’s far from your hand, use an uncooked spaghetti noodle – One end can be set alight, allowing you to kindle hard-to-reach wicks.
  • Invest in a refillable metal lighter for your fire-starting needs.
  • Carry a magnifying glass and relive those childhood moments spent harnessing the rays of the sun to start fires; (exercise power responsibly this time around).
  • If you’d like a mythical option, grow your own giant fennel so you can copy Prometheus and carry coals to-go.
  • Looking for something historical and outdoorsy? There’s the classic friction method involving sticks rubbed together.
  • Equally at home outdoors, the flint and steel technique works in any weather. There is great Do It Yourself wisdom in this photo tutorial from and this video shows you how to use a file instead of a purchased steel.
  • If you’re caught without an official flint and steel kit in the jungle, this video teaches you how to use a parang and native vegetation to start a fire.
  • If you’d like to buy one ready-made, this flint and steel kit got high marks online. Once you’ve got your implements, watch this video and read this article to learn how to use them. As you’ll see, this technique works best for those times when you require a large fire, not a single flame.

My vote is for matches. After all this research into various fire starting methods, I’m looking at matches with fresh awe. They’re tiny but powerful, the gift of fire in a simple little twiglet. They’re all-weather, they work inside and out, they can light a single first birthday candle or a bonfire; each one carries the potential for precision light or conflagration in one package. While there’s no way to start a fire without environmental impact, matches look to me like the lowest impact choice.

We rescued this bowl from a dumpster – The ridges along the side are perfect for striking matches.

Matches – Right up there with the wheel and sliced bread. It’s time to move away from plastic lighters and bring matches back to light our fires.

But what to do with all of the empty single-use plastic lighters you have and find?

REUSE AND REPURPOSE – Find new lives for old plastic lighters:

This is where we need your help. We need more ways to reuse old plastic lighters. Not only will  you be helping to create a crowdsourced resource for people looking to reuse plastic lighters, you’ll be eligible for our free drawing: On Friday, May 11th, 2012 we’ll select a winning comment and ship that lucky person the DIY travel kit of matches pictured in this post. Yes, we’ve turned some trash backwards to make this candy tin turned traveling matchbox, and it could be yours, all yours!

Please attempt these projects only with old, empty single-use plastic lighters. If you don’t have any on hand, ask on your local Freecycle network and check your local sidewalks, parking lots, and beaches for lost lighters waiting to be found and reused.

  1. Turn your old lighters into tiny motorcycles! They can even emit sparks when you roll them around, thanks to the flint from the lighter. According to this video tutorial, this won’t work with Bic brand lighters; if you can prove that wrong, please let us know.
  2. Turn your empty translucent plastic lighters into sun catchers or mobiles. Drill through each one and use wire or string to hang them from a branch, embroidery hoop, or other frame.
  3. Make yourself a vase. Remove the metal tops from a collection of lighters, clean the insides well, and glue them together in a circle or free form snake with the open ends on top. Fill with water and add a tiny blossom to each one.
  4. Create a science fair project that may change the world. Collect lighters from  your community, charting the location of each and compare your finds with local watershed, road, storm drain and sewer maps. Arrange your finds on a display board with your theories about how lighters find their way through the environment and fire up a conversation in your community about plastic pollution.
  5. Create a colorful screen for a bathroom window or anywhere you desire more privacy. Build a simple frame of wood that fits inside your window, then fill that with old translucent plastic lighters. Using glue as necessary, arrange the lighters in orderly rows or something more fanciful, as you desire.

We need your good ideas for this list! Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you’re looking for more in-depth information about lighters, reuse ideas, and how they’re impacting the environment, please visit our Trash Backwards app where you can input any item and find a reduce, reuse, recycle solution for it.

Click Through for More In-Depth Information about Plastic Lighters and the Environment at Trash Backwards

Click Through for More In-Depth Information about Plastic Lighters and the Environment at Trash Backwards

Tags: , ,

Categories: DIY, Reduce Your Use, Repurpose and Reuse, Trash Pile - All Our Stuff, Upcycle


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.


  1. 10 Things You Should Never Have to Buy « Trash Backwards - February 7, 2013

    […] Plastic cigarette lighters (use matches, especially from matchbooks you collect from bars and […]

  2. 50 Things You Never Need to Buy | Trash Backwards - February 22, 2013

    […] Cigarette Lighters: Plastic cigarette lighters replace matches way too often. We still collect cool looking matchbooks from bars and […]

  3. 100 Things You Never Need To Buy | Trash Backwards - May 15, 2013

    […] Cigarette Lighters: Plastic cigarette lighters replace matches way too often. We still collect cool looking matchbooks from bars and […]

  4. 10 Things You Never Need to Buy | Pioneering The Simple Life - April 25, 2016

    […] Plastic cigarette lighters (use matches, especially from matchbooks you collect from bars and […]

  5. 50 Things To Never Buy | Pioneering The Simple Life - April 27, 2017

    […] Cigarette Lighters: Plastic cigarette lighters replace matches way too often. We still collect cool looking matchbooks from bars and […]

  6. The Great Flood of 2017: Plastic Pollution – The Recipe For A Green Life Blog - July 21, 2017

    […] Plastic Lighter Pollution:  Instead, use a hemp wick dispenser, a refillable stainless steel lighter, or sustainable wood-sourced matches. […]

What can you add? Please share your ideas.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: