Is it sustainable just because we’re told it is?

22 09 2010

I just tried to find out more about Project UDesign,   a competition sponsored by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Cargill, Toray Industries and Century Furniture.  The goal is to produce a chair that is both “sustainable and sellable.”  It is targeted to be the next “ eco friendly wing chair” on the market, with the goal of educating the industry and consumers on the topic of sustainable furniture design.[1] Century Furniture has pledged to put the winning chair into production.

Since criteria for the chair design is limited to the use of Cargill’s BiOH® polyols soy foam and Toray’s EcoDesign™ Ultrasuede® upholstery fabric we would like to help Project UDesign reach their goal of educating us on sustainable furniture design by explaining why we think these two products cannot be considered a sustainable choice .  In fact, by sponsoring this competition and limiting the student’s choices to Cargill’s BiOH® polyols (“soy”)  foams and Toray’s EcoDesign™ Ultrasuede® fabrics, it sends absolutely the wrong message to the students and the public about what constitutes an “eco friendly” choice.

So, let’s take a look at these two products to find out why I’m in such a dither:

Beginning with soy foam:   the claim that soy foam is a green product is based on two claims:

  1. that it’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource
  2. that it reduces our dependence on fossil fuels  by  both reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for the feedstock  and  by reducing the energy requirements needed to produce the foam.

Are these viable claims?

It’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource:  This claim is undeniably true.   But what they don’t tell you is that this product, marketed as soy or bio-based, contains very little soy. In fact, it is more accurate to call it ‘polyurethane based foam with a touch of soy added for marketing purposes’. For example, a product marketed as “20% soy based” may sound impressive, but what this typically means is that soy accounts for  only 10% of the foam’s total volume. Why?  Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in 40/60 ratios (40% is the high end for BiOH® polyols used, it can be as low as 5%), “20% soy based” translates to 20% of the polyol portion, or 20% of the 40% of polyols used to make the foam. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam  ‘based’ on fossil fuels, 10% ‘based’ on soy. If you go to Starbucks and buy a 20 oz coffee and add 2-3 soy milk/creamers to it, does it become “soy-based” coffee?

It reduces our dependence on fossil fuels: This means that while suppliers may claim that ‘bio foams’ are based on renewable materials such as soy, in reality a whopping 90 to 95%, and sometimes more of the product consists of the same old petro-chemical based brew of toxic chemicals. This is no ‘leap forward in foam technology’.  In the graphic below, “B-Component” represents the polyol portion of polyurethane, and the “A-Component” represents the isocyanate portion of the polyurethane:

It is true that the energy needed to produce soy-based foam is, according to Cargill, who manufactures the soy polyol,  less that that needed to produce the polyurethane foam.   But because the soy based polyols represent only about 10% of the final foam product, the true energy reduction is only about 4.6% rather than 23%, which is what Cargill leads you to believe in their LCA, which can be read here.   But hey, that’s still a savings and every little bit helps get us closer to a self sustaining economy and is friendlier to the planet, so this couldn’t be what is fueling my outrage.

The real problem with advertising soy based foam as a new, miracle green product is that the foam, whether soy based or not, remains a   ” greenhouse gas-spewing petroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock of Upholstery Arts.

My concern with the use of soy is not its carbon footprint but rather the introduction of a whole new universe of concerns such as pesticide use, genetically modifed crops (GMO), appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.  Most soy crops are now GMO:  according to the USDA, over 91% of all soy crops in the US are now GMO; in 2007, 58.6% of all soybeans worldwide were GMO.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal, please read our posts on these issues (9.23.09 and 9.29.09).  The debate still rages today.  Greenpeace did an expose (“Eating Up The Amazon” ) on what they consider to be a driving force behind  Amazon rain forest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.  You can read the Greenpeace report here, and Cargill’s rejoinder here.

An interesting aside:  There is an article featured on CNNMoney.com about the rise of what they call Soylandia – the enormous swath of soy producing lands in Brazil (almost unknown to Americans) which dominates the global soy trade.  Sure opened my eyes to some associated soy issues.

In “Killing You Softly” (a white paper by Upholstery Arts),  another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing is brought to light:

“Pretending to offer ‘soy based’ foam allows these corporations to cloak themselves in a green blanket and masquerade as environmentally responsible corporations when in practice they are not. By highlighting small petroleum savings, they conveniently distract the public from the fact that this product’s manufacture and use continues to threaten human health and poses serious disposal problems. Aside from replacing a small portion of petroleum polyols, the production of polyurethane based foams with soy added continues to rely heavily on ‘the workhorse of the polyurethane foam industry’, cancer-causing toluene diisocyanate (TDI). So it remains ‘business as usual’ for polyurethane manufacturers.

Despite what polyurethane foam and furniture companies imply , soy foam is not biodegradable either. Buried in the footnotes on their website, Cargill quietly acknowledges that, “foams made with BiOH® polyols are not more biodegradable than traditional petroleum-based cushioning”.[2] Those ever so carefully phrased words are an admission that all polyurethane foams, with or without soy added, simply cannot biodegrade. And so they will languish in our garbage dumps, leach into our water, and find their way into the soft tissue of young children, contaminating and compromising life long after their intended use.

The current marketing of polyurethane foam and furniture made with ‘soy foam’ is merely a page out the tobacco industry’s current ‘greenwashing’ play book. Like a subliminal message, the polyurethane foam and furniture industries are using the soothing words and images of the environmental movement to distract people from the known negative health and environmental impacts of polyurethane foam manufacture, use and disposal.

Cigarettes that are organic (pesticide-free), completely biodegradable, and manufactured using renewable tobacco, still cause cancer and countless deaths. Polyurethane foam made with small amounts of soy-derived materials still exposes human beings to toxic, carcinogenic materials, still relies on oil production, and still poisons life.

As Len Laycock says, “While bio-based technologies may offer promise for creating greener, cradle-to-cradle materials, tonight the only people sitting pretty or sleeping well on polyurethane foam that contains soy are the senior executives and shareholders of the companies benefiting from its sale.  As for the rest of humankind and all the living things over which we have stewardship, we’ve been soy scammed!”

If you’re still with us, lets turn our attention to Toray’s Ultrasuede, and their green claims.

Toray’s green claim for Ultrasuede is that it is based on new and innovative recycling technology, using their postindustrial polyester scraps, which cuts both energy consumption and CO2 emissions by an average of 80% over the creation of virgin polyesters.

If that is the only advance in terms of environmental stewardship, it falls far short of being considered an enlightened choice, as I’ll list below.

If we  look at the two claims made by the company:

  1. Re: energy reduction:  If we take Toray’s claim that it takes just 25 MJ of energy[3] to produce 1 KG of Ultrasuede – that’s still far more energy than is needed to produce 1 KG of organic hemp or linen (10 MJ), or cotton (12 MJ) – with none of the benefits provided by organic agriculture.
  2. CO2 emissions are just one of the emissions issues – in addition to CO2, polyester production generates particulates, N2O, hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides and carbon monoxide, acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane (also potentially carcinogenic).

But in addition to these claims, the manufacture of this product creates many concerns which the company does not address, such as:

  1. Polyurethane, a component of Ultrasuede®, is the most toxic plastic known next to PVC; its manufacture creates numerous hazardous by-products, including phosgene (used as a lethal gas during WWII), isosyanates (known carcinogens), toluene (teratogenic and embryotoxic) and ozone depleting gases methylene chloride and CFC’s.
  2. Most polyester is produced using antimony as a catalyst.  Antimony is a carcinogen, and toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin.  Long term inhalation causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.  So, recycled  – or not –  the antimony is still present.
  3. Ethylene glycol (EG) is a raw material used in the production of polyester.  In the United States alone, an estimated 1 billion lbs. of spent ethylene glycol is generated each year.  The EG distillation process creates 40 million pounds of still bottom sludge. When incinerated, the sludge produces 800,000 lbs of fly ash containing antimony, arsenic and other metals.[4] What does Toray do with its EG sludge?
  4. The major water-borne emissions from polyester production include dissolved solids, acids, iron and ammonia.  Does Toray treat its water before release?
  5. And remember, Ultrasuede®  is still  . . .plastic.  Burgeoning evidence about the disastrous consequences of using plastic in our environment continues to mount.  A new compilation of peer reviewed articles, representing over 60 scientists from around the world, aims to assess the impact of plastics on the environment and human health [5]and they found:
    1. Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies.   Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
    2. Synthetics do not decompose:  in landfills they release heavy metals, including antimony, and other additives into soil and groundwater.  If they are burned for energy, the chemicals are released into the air.
  6. Nor does it take into consideration our alternative choices:  that using an organic fiber supports organic agriculture, which may be one of our most underestimated tools in the fight against climate change, because it:
      1. Acts as a carbon sink:   new research has shown that what is IN the soil itself (microbes and other soil organisms in healthy soil) is more important in sequestering carbon that what grows ON the soil.  And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  demonstrates that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [6]
      2. eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
      3. conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
      4. ensures sustained biodiversity

Claiming that the reclamation and use of their own internally generated scrap is an action to be applauded may be a bit disingenuous.   It is simply the company doing what most companies should do as efficient operations:  cut costs by re-using their own scrap. They are creating a market for their otherwise unsaleable scrap polyester from other operations such as the production of polyester film.  This is a good step by Toray, but to anoint it as the most sustainable choice or even as a true sustainable choice at all is disingenuous. Indeed we have pointed in prior blog posts that there are many who see giving “recycled polyester” a veneer of environmentalism by calling it a green option is one of the reasons plastic use has soared:  plastic use has increased by a factor of 30 since the 1960s while recycling plastic has only increased by a factor of 2. [7]

We cannot condone the use of this synthetic, made from an inherently non-renewable resource, as a green choice for the many reasons given above.

[1] Cargill press release, July 20, 2010  http://www.cargill.com/news-center/news-releases/2010/NA3031350.jsp

[2] http://www.bioh.com/bioh_faqs.html

[3] If we take the average energy needed to produce 1 KG of virgin polyester, 125 MJ (data from “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Enviornemnt Institute) , and reduce it by 80% (Toray’s claim), that means it takes 25 MJ to produce 1 KG of Ultrasuede®

[4] Sustainable Textile Development at Victor,  http://www.victor-innovatex.com/doc/sustainability.pdf

[5] “Plastics, the environment and human health”, Thompson, et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, July 27, 2009

[6] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf

[7] http://www.edf.org/documents/1889_SomethingtoHide.pdf and http://discovermagazine.com/2009/oct/21-numbers-plastics-manufacturing-recycling-death-landfill


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6 responses

23 09 2010
Frida

Love your posts! So much great information. I was wondering one thing however, is there a good material that can be used instead of the petroleum based foams?

24 09 2010
oecotextiles

Hi Frida: Thanks for the kind words. As for alternatives to petroleum based foams, unfortunately there are few and they’re expensive. There is natural latex (vs. synthetic latex – see our blog post https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/01/20/foam-for-upholstery-cushions/) , wool batting, down and feathers, and that old standby- horsehair. Wish somebody could come up with other options.

10 05 2011
maggie

Do you have any information on any physical effects of soy- based foam in furniture? I have been reading about large the consumption of soy influencing our hormones and was wondering if the same could be said for soy foam in furniture? I had assumed that since it does not involve ingestion or even direct contact it would not have any harmful physical effects?

10 05 2011
oecotextiles

Hi Maggie: The key word is “based”, as in soy based foam. There is very little soy used in the polymer, and the polyurethane portion still is made from methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide) and Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) – both of which are listed as carcinogenic; and because it’s so flammable it probably contains a halogenated flame retardant, like pentaBDE. It also contains formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and other well established toxic chemicals. The foam oxidizes, and we breathe it in. So even if soy were a problem (and I can’t answer that part of your question), I think that’s dwarfed by the exposure to the chemicals used in the polyurethane portion of the foam.

15 08 2012
green grits

What about a coconut based “foam” alternative? Any thoughts on how this could work in reupholstery?

http://www.envirotextile.com/fiberfoam/

15 08 2012
O Ecotextiles

I have never heard of coconut based “foam”, but will look into it. I do know that EnviroTextiles offers a coconut fiber/latex combination, but it’s not a foam product. They say it can be used as a foam alternative, but I have never seen it nor do I know what it might feel like. Does anybody out there have any experience with this product?

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