What kind of filling for your sofa cushions?

12 05 2015

 

One thing that most people care about is how the cushions feel to them – do you like to sink down into the cushions or you like a denser, more supportive cushion? Either way, the cushions are important.

Before plastics, our grandparents filled cushions with feathers, horsehair, wool or cotton batting – even straw (one of the earliest stuffing materials). This stuff often shifted, meaning that you’d have to plump up the feathers, horsehair or batting to make the sofa look, and feel, good.  But with the advent of plastics, our lives changed.  Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 55 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP and it behaved!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.  Today, Eisenberg Upholstery’s website says that “easily 25% of all furniture repairs I see deal with bad foam or padding. The point is: start with good foam and you won’t be sorry.”

Polyurethane foam for cushions are generally measured by two values:

  1. The density or weight per cubic foot. The higher the number, the more it weighs.   Foam that has a density of 1.8, for example, contains 1.8 lbs. of foam per cubic foot and foam that has a density of 2.5 would have 2.5 lbs of foam per cubic foot.  Density for sofa cushions ranges between 1.6 and 5 or even 6.
  2. The second measurement tells you the firmness of the foam  (called the IFD  – the Indentation Force Deflection). The IFD is the feel of the cushion, and tells you how much weight it takes to compress the foam by one third. The lower IFD will sit softer. The higher IFD will sit firmer.  IFD numbers range between 15 to 35.

What many people don’t realize is that the density and firmness numbers go hand in hand – you can’t look at one without the other.  They are expressed as density/firmness, for example: 15/30 or 29/52.  The first, 15/30 means that 1.5 pounds of foam per cubic foot will take 30 pounds of weight to compress the foam 33%.  The second example means that 2.9 pounds per cubic foot of foam will take 52 pounds of weight to compress the block 33%.

After choosing which foam to use, it is then wrapped with something to soften the edges – for example,  Dacron or polyester batting, cotton or wool batting or down/feathers.

Lowest quality sofas will not even wrap the (low quality) foam; higher quality sofas have cushions that are made from very high quality foam and wrapped in wool or down.  But as you will see, the foam is itself very problematic.

You will now commonly find in the market polyurethane foam, synthetic or natural latex rubber and the new, highly touted soy based foam.  We’ll look at these individually:

The most popular type of cushion filler today is polyurethane foam. Also known as “Polyfoam”, it has been the standard fill in most furniture since its wide scale introduction in the 1960’s because of its low cost (really cheap!).  A staggering 2.1 billion pounds of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.[1]

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil. It involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates:

  • A polyol is a substance created through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide).
  • Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, and is considered the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production.
  • Both methyloxirane and TDI have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California
  • Both are on the List of  Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
  • Propylene oxide and TDI are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors.  However, none of these chemicals have ever been regulated for their potential to induce breast cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.   There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death), but exposure isn’t limited to factories: The State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure and isocyanate exposure has been found at such places as public schools.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean, as Len Laycock explains in his series “Killing You Softly”, “that consumers are not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when using materials that contain polyurethane. Once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. This includes particles created from the break down of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.”

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants. And if the dust doesn’t get you, research also indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”

I found this on the Sovn blog:

“the average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress covered in polyester fabric loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.”

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing).  Post consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it  mostly ends up at the landfill.  This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

Polyfoam has some hidden costs (other than the chemical “witch’s brew” described above):  besides its relatively innocuous tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and its poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold), it is also extremely flammable, and therein lies another rub!

Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline.” When untreated foam is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly are the toxic gasses produced by burning polyurethane foam –  such as hydrogen cyanide. The gas was also implicated in the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including Great White guitarist Ty Longley, and injured more than 200 others. Tellingly, a witness to that fire, television news cameraman Brian Butler, told interviewers that “It had to be two minutes, tops, before the whole place was black smoke.”   Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

Therefore, flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture.   This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam releases a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) is far outweighed by the disadvantages:  being made from a non-renewable resource (oil),  and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam – not to mention the fact that even the best foams begin to break down after around 10 – 12 years of “normal use”.[2] The fact that California has amended the old law that required fire retardants in polyurethane foam doesn’t affect the fact that in a fire, the toxic gasses released by the foam (such as hydrogen cyanide) would incapacitate the occupants of a house in just a few minutes.

The newest entry in the green sweepstakes is what’s called a bio-based foam made from soybeans. This “soy foam” is highly touted as “A leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options,” as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, advertising their green program of using foam cushions with “20% bio based foam” (everybody knows we have to start somewhere and that’s a start, right?).  As Len Laycock,  CEO of Upholstery Arts (which was the first furniture company in the world to introduce Cradle to Cradle product cycle and achieve the Rainforest Alliance Forest Stewardship Council Certification),  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   (I have leaned heavily on Mr. Laycock’s articles on poly and soy foam, “Killing You Softly”, for this post.)

As with so many over hyped ‘green’ claims, it’s the things they don’t say that matter most.  While these claims contain grains of truth, they are a far cry from the whole truth. So called ‘soy foam’ is hardly the dreamy green product that manufacturers and suppliers want people to believe. To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  • it’s made from soybeans, a renewable  resource
  • 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 only 20 % of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘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: According to Cargill, a multi-national producer of agricultural and industrial products, including BiOH polyol (the “soy” portion of “soy foam”), the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ ranges from  5% up to a theoretical 40% of polyurethane foam formulations. 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’. 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 the way they report the difference is certainly difficult to decipher:  soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols, according to Cargill’s LCA.   But the formula for the foam uses only 20% soy based  polyols, so by my crude calculations (20% of 50%…) the energy savings of 20% soy based foam would require only 4.6%  less energy than that used to make the petroleum based foam.  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.

But 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 pretroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock.

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, 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 rainforest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.

In “Killing You Softly“, another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing is brought to light:

“Pretending to offer a ‘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”. 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.

So what’s a poor consumer to do?  We think there is a viable, albeit expensive, product choice: natural latex (rubber). The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”. Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

  • Natural latex – The raw material for  natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning.  Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia,  through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural  latex.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly  flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing associated with it.    Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a  smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams [3]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as  “latex” or even “100% natural latex”.  It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber  (SBR).   The chemical styrene is  toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain; the EPA finds nervous system effects such as depression, loss of concentration and a potential for cancer(4).  Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization.    Often however, synthetic latex  can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a  combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR.  Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor!    Being  petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of  synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

Natural latex is breathable, biodegradeable,  healthier (i.e., totally nontoxic, and mold & mildew proof) and lasts longer than polyfoam – some reports say up to 20 times longer.

 

[1] DFE 2008 Office Chair Foam;  http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

[2] http://www.foamforyou.com/Foam_Specs.htm

[3] Op cit., http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

(4) Technical Fact Sheet on: Styrene; Environmental Protection Agency; http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw/pdfs/factsheets/voc/tech/styrene.pdf

 

 





What does the new TB117-2013 mean to you?

16 12 2013

California has approved a new  flammability standard for residential furniture that is receiving widespread praise among environmentalists.  But we’d like you to examine, with us, some details about the new standard that you’ll need to know to keep you and your family safe from these extremely toxic chemicals.

California is the only state in the U.S. with a mandatory flammability standard for residential furniture.  The original law, TB117, was passed with all the good will in the world – to protect people from dying in house fires by giving them time to escape.  But  as is often the case, there were unintended consequences – we have found that the fire retardant chemicals are linked to cancer, developmental problems, reduced IQ and impaired fertility –  and more.  These chemicals  both persist (i.e, last a long time) and  bioaccumulate (i.e., are absorbed at a rate greater than that at which the substance is lost – leading to a risk of chronic poisoning) in human systems.  And the final straw:  ironically, the chemicals don’t protect us from fires – they just allow the material not to fail the flammability test.  In actual fires, the materials do burn, and just as massively as untreated foam,  and that releases toxic smoke into the air; one pundit has said that firefighters have more to fear from the smoke  than from the actual fire.

Recently, there has been growing pressure to change California’s “Technical Bulletin 117”, which required furniture manufacturers to inject flame retardant chemicals into the polyurethane foam used in all upholstered furniture sold in the state.  (Please note: the law only pertained to filling materials.) Because California is such a huge market, this law has become a de facto national standard. This pressure was fueled by a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Playing with Fire” (click here to read the articles) , and more recently by the HBO film, Toxic Hot Seat, both of which exposed the considerable health risks of flame retardant chemicals, as well as the attempts by the chemical industry to thwart attempts at reform.

Why are flame retardant chemicals required in polyurethane foam?  Answer:  Because polyurethane is basically solid gasoline, which means it’s basically an accelerant.   The old test required that it pass a test by withstanding an open flame for 12 seconds before igniting.  Because this is impossible, the chemicals were added to prevent ignition.

What makes the new TB117-2013 different is that the test methods have changed.  Legislators decided to amend the manner in which flammability is measured.  They reasoned that most house fires start from smoldering cigarettes, which cause the fabric to smolder and catch fire – not from within the cushion in the foam.   They thought that upholstery cover fabrics play a more important role in fire behavior performance than filling materials – flames start on the fabric,  not from deep within the cushions, so the best way to prevent the foam from igniting is to make sure that the surface materials do not smolder in the first place.

So the new test did away with the 12 second open flame test and replaced it with a smolder-only test.  In this test, a lighted cigarette (not an open flame) is placed on the surface of the furniture.   If charring occurs which is 2 inches or less, the furniture is considered to pass.  This is a much easier test to pass than the open flame test.

So the new TB117-2013 enables foam manufacturers to reduce or eliminate flame retardant chemicals – but it doesn’t forbid their use.   The new law was designed to enable manufacturers to eliminate the flame retardants, but if they choose to use them it’s not illegal.  It’s up to manufacturers to decide how they plan to meet the new standard.

Most fabrics used in upholstery today are  synthetics or synthetic blends (natural fiber/synthetic).  And synthetics are created from crude oil – so they too are basically solid gasoline.  An accelerant.  Fabrics can be fire retarded easily and cheaply, and it’s very commonly done.  So although the foam manufacturers can (if they so choose) eliminate flame retardant chemicals in the foam, the burden of passing a smolder test now falls on the fabric.  It seems to me that the flame retardant chemicals are now just going to be found in the fabrics rather than the foam.

The new law was originally supposed to go into effect on July 1, 2014, but manufacturers, who said they “needed the additional times to deplete current supplies and effectuate the new regulatory changes” extended the new date to January 1, 2015.  However, starting in January, 2014, manufacturers will be able to sell furniture with a “TB117-2013” tag – so consumers should make sure to ask whether the sofa or chair has been treated with flame retardant chemicals.  Manufacturers are not required to disclose whether they use flame retardants or not, and few label their products.

If you really want to be sure, the Center for Environmental Health can test foam to detect the presence of flame retardants.  The tests only indicate whether certain elements are present, such as chlorine or bromine.  If so, it is likely the foam was treated with flame retardants.  If you want information on how to use this free service, click here.

Even if the foam is  tested and found not to contain flame retardants, that is by no means a clean bill of health for your sofa, because the fabrics may well contain flame retardants.  And a TB117-2013 label on a piece of furniture is not a guarantee that there are no flame retardants used in the piece.

And we think it’s pretty critical to add this final caveat – flame retardant chemicals are just ONE of the many chemicals which may be found in your fabrics.  Textile production uses a lot of chemicals,  most of which have toxicity profiles as equally unsavory as flame retardants: consider formaldehyde, perfluorocarbons (PFC’s), benzene, APEO’s, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) and Bisphenol A in synthetics, and heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium.  So to limit yourselves to eliminating flame retardant chemicals from the fabrics or furniture you live with  – as wonderful as that is – means you’re not seeing the forest for the trees.





True cost of a conventional sofa

8 11 2013

Buying a sofa is a big committment: it dominates the room, costs a lot, and should be presentable for at least 10 years. So let’s say that you’ve cruised the stores, sat in the sofas, lifted them, pushed and probed – and decided on a version that looks and feels right. And you’ve made sure that your choice contained all the ingredients for a high quality sofa – hardwood frame (check), 8 way hand-tied springs (check); high density foam (check), and a decorative fabric that will last the entire 10 – 20 year estimated life of the sofa.

But is it organic?

Most people wouldn’t give that question a second thought, but we think it’s a critical question. Why? Well, let’s just assume you’ve chosen a conventionally produced sofa. That means:

1. The hardwood is not FSC certified, which means it comes from a forest that is not managed. That means you’ve chipped away at your children’s inheritance of this Earth by supporting practices which don’t support healthy forests, which are critical to maintaining life: forests filter pollutants from the air, purify the water we drink, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. They provide habitat for 90% of the animal and plant species which live on land. Forests are commercially important, too; they yield valuable resources like wood, rubber and medicinal plants, including plants used to create cancer drugs. Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products. If you have chosen a sofa which uses plywood, medium density fiberboard (MDF) or Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam), then you will also be living with formaldehyde emissions. To read more about why FSC certification is important, click here.

2. The sofa uses either polyurethane or soy foam. Even high density polyurethane foam – as well as soy foam, the new media darling – emits methyloxirane, which causes cancer and genetic mutations , and toluene, a neurotoxin . Your polyurethane/soy foams oxidize over time, sending these chemicals into the air, where you can breathe them in.  Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development. And because polyurethane and soy foams are basically solid gasoline, they often require flame retardant chemicals. To read more about soy and poly foams, click here  and here.

From blog.greensciencepolicy.org

From blog.greensciencepolicy.org

3. Your sofa uses fabric – made of anything from cotton to linen or polyester – which was produced without regard to the kinds of chemicals used in dyestuffs, processing or finishes. Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals, and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known – among them, lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A (BPA), flame retardants such as pentaBDE, PFOA.

There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used  –  because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all. Many studies have linked specific diseases with work in the textile industry – such as autoimmune diseases, leukemia and breast cancer. Some of the chemicals used in processing evaporate into your home’s air (such as formaldehyde), others (like lead) will be available in house dust – because every time you sit down or brush against the fabric, microscopic particles abrade and fly into the air. And remember, your skin is a permeable membrane. We are just beginning to understand how even tiny doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive periods of development, and how the endocrine system involves a myriad of chemical messengers and feedback loops. A fetus might respond to a chemical at one hundred-fold less concentration or more, yet when you take that chemical away, the body is nonetheless altered for life.  So infants may seem fine at birth, but might carry within them a trigger only revealed later in life, often in puberty, when endocrine systems go into hyperdrive. This increases the adolescent’s or adult’s chances of falling ill, getting fat, or becoming infertile, for example. For more on these issues, click here  and here

4. Finally, glues, varnishes, paint all contribute to the toxic load of evaporating chemicals if conventional products have been used on your sofa.

We are often asked about the perceived higher cost of going organic – but really, isn’t the true cost of a conventional sofa more than anybody should have to bear?





Sofa cushions – foam, soy foam or latex?

12 09 2013

So we have produced the frame and put in the suspension system.  Next in line are the cushions – something soft to sit on.

In an upholstered piece of furniture, the cushions need a filler of some kind.  Before plastics, our grandparents used feathers, horsehair or wool or cotton batting.  But with the advent of plastics, our lives changed.  Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 50 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.  Today, Eisenberg Upholstery’s website says that “easily 25% of all furniture repairs I see deal with bad foam or padding. The point is start with good foam and you won’t be sorry.”

Cushions are generally measured by two values:

  • The density or weight per cubic foot of polyurethane foam. The higher the number the more it weighs.   Foam that has a density of 1.8 foam, for example, contains 1.8 lbs of foam per cubic foot and foam that is 2.5 foam would have 2.5 lbs of foam per cubic foot.  Density for sofa cushions ranges between 1.6 and 5 or even 6.
  • The second measurement tells you the firmness of the foam  (called the IFD  – the Indentation Force Deflection). The IFD is the feel of the cushion, and tells you how much weight it takes to compress the foam by one third. The lower IFD will sit softer. The higher IFD will sit firmer.  IFD numbers range between 15 to 35

What many people don’t realize is that the density and firmness numbers go hand in hand – you can’t look at one without the other.  They are expressed as density/firmness, for example: 15/30 or 29/52.  The first, 15/30 means that 1.5 pounds of foam per cubic foot will take 30 pounds of weight to compress the foam 33%.  The second example means that 2.9 pounds per cubic foot of foam will take 52 pounds of weight to compress the block one third.

The foam is then wrapped with something to soften the edges – for example,  Dacron or polyester batting, cotton or wool batting or down/feathers.

Lowest quality sofas will not even wrap the (low quality) foam; higher quality sofas have cushions that are made from very high quality foam and wrapped in wool or down.  But as you will see, the foam is itself very problematic.

You will now commonly find in the market polyurethane foam, synthetic or natural latex rubber and the new, highly touted soy based foam.  We’ll look at these individually, and explore issues other than embodied energy :

The most popular type of cushion filler today is polyurethane foam. Also known as “Polyfoam”, it has been the standard fill in most furniture since its wide scale introduction in the 1960’s because of its low cost (really cheap!).  A staggering 2.1 billion pounds of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.[1]

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil. It involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates:

  • A polyol is a substance created through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide).
  • Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, and is      considered the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production.
    • Both methyloxirane  and TDI have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California
    • Both are on the List of  Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
    • Propylene oxide and TDI are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors.       However, none of these chemicals have ever been regulated for their potential to induce breast cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.   There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death), but exposure isn’t limited to factories: The State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure and isocyanate exposure has been found at such places as public schools.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean, as Len Laycock explains in his series “Killing You Softly”, “that consumers are not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when using materials that contain polyurethane. Once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. This includes particles created from the break down of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.”

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants. And if the dust doesn’t get you, research also indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”

I found this on the Sovn blog:

“the average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress covered in polyester fabric loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.”

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing).  Post consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it  mostly ends up at the landfill.  This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

Polyfoam has some hidden costs (other than the chemical “witch’s brew” described above):  besides its relatively innocuous tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and its poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold), it is also extremely flammable, and therein lies another rub!

Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline.” When untreated foam is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly are the toxic gasses produced by burning polyurethane foam –  such as hydrogen cyanide. The gas was also implicated in the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including Great White guitarist Ty Longley, and injured more than 200 others. Tellingly, a witness to that fire, television news cameraman Brian Butler, told interviewers that “It had to be two minutes, tops, before the whole place was black smoke.”   Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

Therefore, flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture.   This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam releases a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) is far outweighed by the disadvantages:  being made from a non-renewable resource (oil),  and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam – not to mention the fact that even the best foams begin to break down after around 10 – 12 years of “normal use”.[2]

Now we see ads for a  new miracle product: a bio based foam made from soybeans, which is highly touted as “A leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options,” as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, advertising their green program of using foam cushions with “20% bio based foam” (everybody knows we have to start somewhere and that’s a start, right?).  As Len Laycock,  CEO of Upholstery Arts (which was the first furniture company in the world to introduce Cradle to Cradle product cycle and achieve the Rainforest Alliance Forest Stewardship Council Certification),  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   (I have leaned heavily on Mr. Laycock’s articles on poly and soy foam, “Killing You Softly”, for this post.)

As with so many over hyped ‘green’ claims, it’s the things they don’t say that matter most.  While these claims contain grains of truth, they are a far cry from the whole truth. So called ‘soy foam’ is hardly the dreamy green product that manufacturers and suppliers want people to believe.

To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  1. it’s made from soybeans, a renewable  resource
  2. 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 only 20 % of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘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: According to Cargill, a multi-national producer of agricultural and industrial products, including BiOH polyol (the “soy” portion of “soy foam”), the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ ranges from  5% up to a theoretical 40% of polyurethane foam formulations. 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’.

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 the way they report the difference is certainly difficult to decipher:  soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols, according to Cargill’s LCA.   But the formula for the foam uses only 20% soy based  polyols, so by my crude calculations (20% of 50%…) the energy savings of 20% soy based foam would require only 4.6%  less energy than that used to make the petroleum based foam.  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.

But 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 pretroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock.

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, 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 rainforest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.  You can read the Greenpeace report here, and Cargill’s rejoinder here.

In “Killing You Softly“, another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing is brought to light:

“Pretending to offer a ‘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”. 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.

So what’s a poor consumer to do?  We think there is a viable, albeit expensive, product choice: natural latex (rubber). The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”.   Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

  • Natural latex – The raw material for  natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning.  Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia,  through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural  latex.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly  flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing associated with it.    Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a  smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams [3]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as  “latex” or even “100% natural latex”.  It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber  (SBR).   The chemical styrene is  toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain.  Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization.    Often however, synthetic latex  can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a  combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR.  Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor!    Being  petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of  synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

Natural latex is breathable, biodegradeable,  healthier (i.e., totally nontoxic, and mold & mildew proof) and lasts longer than polyfoam – some reports say up to 20 times longer.

Is there really a question as to which to buy?


[1] DFE 2008 Office Chair Foam;  http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

[2] http://www.foamforyou.com/Foam_Specs.htm

[3] Op cit., http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics





Are organic sofas expensive?

25 10 2012

A current theme in the blogosphere is that organic sofas are expensive, so let’s see what that could mean.

We often hear that organic stuff costs more than conventional stuff, and that only the rich can take advantage of the benefits of organic products.  That is true of food prices – organic food typically costs from 20% to 100% more than conventionally produced equivalents. [1]  And I won’t go into what we seem to be getting in return for buying the cheaper, conventionally produced foods, but let’s just say it’s akin to a  Faustian bargain.

But look at the food companies which in the 1950s routinely produced laughably inaccurate adverts trumpeting the health benefits associated with their products. 

Those old school adverts, ridiculous as they look now, displayed an awareness that healthy food resonated with modern consumers, and heralded the start of a 60 year long transformation that has seen nutrition become the issue that arguably defines the way the food industry operates. It is entirely conceivable that the raft of new green marketing campaigns that have emerged in recent years mark the beginning of a similar journey with other product categories.

So enough about food – this is a blog about textile subjects.  And like food, organic fibers are also more expensive than non-organic.  There is no way to get around the fact that organic cotton items are anywhere from 10 to 45 percent more expensive than conventional cotton products.  But conventional cotton prices don’t take into account the impact that  production has on the planet and the many people involved in its manufacture, including sweatshops and global poverty. With organic cotton, you are paying more initially, but that cost is passed not only to the retailer, but to the weavers, seamstresses, pickers and growers who made that item’s production possible. In turn, you are also investing in your own health with a garment that will not off-gas (yup, just like toxic paints) chemicals or dyes that can impact all of your body’s basic systems.

Those prices – or costs, depending on what we choose to call them – are compounded and go up exponentially in an organic vs. conventional sofa because each input in an organic sofa is more expensive than its conventional counterpart:

  • Organic sofas often use FSC certified hardwoods – which means you’re supporting a resource which is managed so that the forest stays healthy.  Forests are critical to maintaining life on earth:  they  filter pollutants from the air, absorb CO2, purify the water we drink,  and provide habitat for both animals and some indigenous cultures.   Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products.  Conventional sofas, on the other hand, often use composite plywoods, medium density fiberboard  (MDF) or Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam).    These products are glued together using formaldehyde resins.  And formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.  The hardwoods are more expensive than the other options, but  they don’t have the formaldehyde emissions.
  • Conventional sofas almost exclusively use polyurethane  foam – or that new marketing darling,  soy foam.  Polyurethane and soy foams are much cheaper than natural latex, but they  are made of methyloxirane and TDI, both of which have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California and are highly flammable, requiring flame retardant chemicals.  They also emit toluene, a known neurotoxin.  The foam oxidizes, sending these toxic particles into the air which we breathe in.  But they’re cheap.  Natural latex, on the other hand, does not impact human health in any way, and it lasts far longer than polyurethane or soy foams.
  • Organic sofas use fabrics that do not contain chemicals which can harm human health.   Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals, and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known.  Many studies have linked specific diseases with work in the textile industry – such as autoimmune diseases, leukemia and breast cancer.[2]  Organic fabrics do not contain these dangerous chemicals, so you won’t be exposing yourself and your family to these chemicals.
  • Auxiliaries, such as glues and varnishes, have been evaluated to be safe in an organic sofa.

It just so happens that the web site Remodelista published a post on September 26 entitled “10 Easy Pieces:  The Perfect White Sofa” by Julie.[3]  (Click HERE to see that post.)  And it gives us the pricing!  Prices range from $399 for an IKEA sofa to $9500, and 10 sofas are priced (one in British Pound Sterling, which I converted into US dollars at 1.61 to the dollar).   The average price of the sofas listed is $4626 and of the 10 sofas with pricing, the median is $3612.  None of them mentions anything about being organic.  That means you’ll be paying good money for a sofa that most probably uses:

  • Polyurethane or soy-based foam  – which off gasses its toxic witch’s brew of synthetic chemicals and flame retardants.
  • Non FSC certified hardwood (if you’re lucky), or composite plywood, MDF or Glulam, which offgasses formaldehyde.
  • Conventionally produced fabrics that expose you and your children to chemicals that may be causing any number of health concerns, from headaches and allergies to changes in our DNA.
  • Glues, paints and/or varnishes which off gas volatile organic compounds.

As to price:  let’s  take a look at one sofa manufacturer with whom we work  closely, Ekla Home (full disclosure:  who uses our fabric exclusively) – the average price of Ekla Home’s sofa collection (assuming the most expensive fabric category) is $3290.  That’s $1,336 LESS than the average of the sofas in the Remodelista post, none of which are organic.

Admittedly, one of the sofas that you can buy costs $399 from IKEA.  Putting aside all the myriad health implications involved in this piece of furniture, there is still the issue of quality.  Carl Richards, a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and the director of investor education at BAM Advisor Services, had a piece in the New York Times recently, about frugality and what it really means.  Here is how he put it:

It’s tempting to tell ourselves this little story about being frugal as we buy garbage from WalMart instead of the quality stuff that we want. Stuff that lasts. Stuff that we can own for a long time.

Here is the issue: when we settle for stuff that we don’t really want, and instead buy stuff that will be fine for a while, it often costs more in the long run.”

New York Times, Carl Richard

So I’m a bit flummoxed as to why people complain that  organic sofas are expensive.  Expensive compared to what?     If I was paranoid, I’d think there was some kind of subtle campaign being waged by Big Industry to plant that idea into our heads.


[1] The Fox News website (http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2012/03/11/10-reasons-organic-food-is-so-expensive/ ) had some interesting reasons as to why that’s true, some of which are listed below:

  1. Chemicals and synthetic pesticides reduce the cost of production by getting the job done faster and more efficiently. Without them, organic farmers have to hire more workers for tasks like hand-weeding, cleanup of polluted water, and the remediation of pesticide contamination.
  2. Demand overwhelms supply:  Americans claim they prefer to eat organic foods, yet organic farmland only accounts for 0.9% of total worldwide farmland.
  3. Animal manure and compost are more expensive to ship (this is their list, not mine!) and synthetic chemical equivalents are very cheap.
  4.  Instead of chemical weed killers, organic farmers conduct sophisticated crop rotations to keep their soil healthy and prevent weed growth. After harvesting a crop, an organic farmer may use that area to grow “cover crops,” which add nitrogen to the soil to benefit succeeding crops.
  5. In order to avoid cross-contamination, organic produce must be separated from conventional produce after being harvested. Conventional crops are shipped in larger quantities since conventional farms are able to produce more.
  6.  Acquiring USDA organic certification is no easy — or cheap — task. In addition to the usual farming operations, farm facilities and production methods must comply with certain standards, which may require the modification of facilities. Employees must be hired to maintain strict daily record-keeping that must be available for inspection at any time. And organic farms must pay an annual inspection/certification fee, which starts at $400 to $2,000 a year, depending on the agency and the size of the operation.
  7. Last but not least – subsidies.  In 2008, farm subsidies were $7.5 billion, compared to organic and local food programs which received only $15 million.

Many  say that if Americans who profess to want to buy organic food would stop going to fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, and buying processed, packaged and pre-made foods, they could easily afford organic foods.

[2]

  • In 2007, The National Institutes of health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t. (Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine Are a Growing Hazard”, Washington
    Post
    , March 16, 2008.)
  • A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths. (Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment
    workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental
    Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.)
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population. (Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:
    10.1136/oem.2009.049817 SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321)
  • Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller. Note: lead is a common component in textile dyestuffs. (Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
    Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.)




How to buy a “quality” sofa – soy foam

19 09 2012

In my last post I explained that polyurethane foam (polyfoam) has a plethora of problems associated with it:

  • The chemicals used to manufacture the foam have been formally identified as carcinogens; and the flame retardant chemicals added to almost all foams increase the chemical toxicity.  These chemicals evaporate (VOCs)  and pollute our indoor air and dust;
  • It does not decompose in the landfill; the recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous chemicals;
  • It is dependent on a non-renewable resource: crude oil.

When untreated foam (aka, “solid gasoline”)  is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly is the toxic gas produced by burning polyurethane foam – hydrogen cyanide gas.  Hydrogen cyanide itself is so toxic that it was used by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists who attacked Tokyo’s subway system in 1995, and in Nazi death camps during World War II. The gas was also implicated in the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including Great White guitarist Ty Longley, and injured more than 200 others. Tellingly, a witness to that fire, television news cameraman Brian Butler, told interviewers that “It had to be two minutes, tops, before the whole place was black smoke.”   Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

Polyfoam is so flammable  – burning  so hot and emitting such toxic fumes while burning –  that even the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) recommends that it be placed in Class 9 (an unusual but clearly hazardous material) because they are concerned about the safety of firemen and other first responders.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 50 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.

But today – not long after jumping on the bandwagon –  we have concerns about polyurethane:  in addition to all the problems mentioned above there is concern about its carbon footprint. So now we see ads for a  new miracle product: a bio based foam made from soybeans, which is highly touted as “A leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options,” as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, advertising their green program of using foam cushions with “20% bio based foam” (everybody knows we have to start somewhere and that’s a start, right?).  As Len Laycock, CEO of Upholstery Arts,  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   I have again leaned heavily on Mr. Laycock’s articles on poly and soy foam, “Killing You Softly”, for this post.

As with so many over hyped ‘green’ claims, it’s the things they don’t say that matter most.  While these claims contain grains of truth, they are a far cry from the whole truth. So-called ‘soy foam’ is hardly the dreamy green product that manufacturers and suppliers want people to believe.

To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  1. it’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource
  2. 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 only 20 % of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘based’ on soy. As Len Laycock asks, 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: According to Cargill, a multi-national producer of agricultural and industrial products, including BiOH polyol (the “soy” portion of “soy foam”), the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ ranges from  5% up to a theoretical 40% of polyurethane foam formulations (theoretical because 40% soy has not resulted in useable foams). 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’ as claimed.

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 the way they report the difference is certainly difficult to decipher:  soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols, according to Cargill’s LCA.   But the formula for the foam uses only 20% soy based  polyols, so by my crude calculations (20% of 50%…) the energy savings of 20% soy based foam would require only 4.6%  less energy than that used to make the petroleum based foam.  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.

But 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 pretroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock.

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, 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 rainforest 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“, Len Laycock presents another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing:

“Pretending to offer a ‘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”. 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.

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!”





How to buy a “quality” sofa – part 3 (foam)

4 09 2012

In an upholstered piece of furniture, the cushions need a filler of some kind.  Before plastics, our grandparents used feathers, horsehair or wool or cotton batting.  But with the advent of plastics, our lives changed.  You will now commonly see polyurethane foam, synthetic or natural latex rubber and the new, highly touted soy based foam.

In putting together this information on foams, I  leaned heavily on a series of blog postings by Len Laycock (CEO of Upholstery Arts), called “Killing Me Softly”.   It saddens me to have found out that Upholstery Arts is no longer selling furniture.

The most popular type of cushion filler today is polyurethane foam. Also known as “Polyfoam”, it has been the standard fill in most furniture since its wide scale introduction in the 1960’s because of its low cost (really cheap!).  A staggering 2.1 billion pounds of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.[1]

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil. It involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates:

  • A polyol is a substance created through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide).
  • Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, and is considered the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production.
    • Both methyloxirane and TDI have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California
    • Both are on the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
    • Propylene oxide and TDI are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors. However, none of these chemicals have ever been regulated for their potential to induce breast cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.   There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death), but exposure isn’t limited to factories: The State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure and isocyanate exposure has been found at such places as public schools.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean, as Len Laycock explains, “that consumers are not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when using materials that contain polyurethane. Once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. This includes particles created from the break down of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.”

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants. And if the dust doesn’t get you, research also indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”

I found this on the Sovn blog:

“the average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress covered in polyester fabric loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.”

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing).  Post consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it  mostly ends up at the landfill.  This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

Polyfoam has some hidden costs (other than the chemical “witch’s brew” described above):  besides its relatively innocuous tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and its poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold), it is also extremely flammable, and therein lies another rub!

Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline.” Therefore, flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture.   This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam can release a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide. Of these chemicals, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide are considered lethal. When breathed in, it deprives the body of oxygen, resulting in dizziness, headaches, weakness of the limbs, tightness in the chest, mental dullness, and finally a lapse of concsiousness that leads to death. Many of these are considered potential carcinogens or have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) must be evaluated with the disadvantages:  being made from a non-renewable resource (oil),  and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam.

Natural or Synthetic latex: The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”.   Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

  • Natural latex – The raw material for natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning.  Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia, through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural latex.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and  is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing associated with it. Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams[2]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as “latex” or even “100% natural latex”.  It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber  (SBR).   The chemical styrene is toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain.  Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization.    Often however, synthetic latex can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR.  Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor!  Being  petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

Next I would like to talk about those new soy based foams that are all the rage, but I don’t want to bite off too much.   It’s a big topic and one that deserves its own post.   So that’s going to be next week’s post!





How to evaluate a “quality” sofa – part 1

15 08 2012

In light of the recent Chicago Tribune series, “Playing with Fire”  about the deceptive campaigns waged by manufacturers of flame retardants, it seems that with each call we get,  we end up talking about flame retardants.  We think that’s skewed, because flame retardants, though certainly something we wouldn’t want to live with, are not the only monsters in the dark.  So we want to talk again about what makes a “green”,  “safe”, or “sustainable” sofa  – whatever you want to call it – and how to evaluate manufacturers claims.  What we mean is a sofa that does not compromise your health – or mine.   So you can live with a sofa which does not contain chemicals which can harm you, but if a manufacturer does not capture the environmental pollutants created during the process, the end result will be the same – it will just take a bit longer.

So we’re going to do a series of blog posts on the various components of a sofa, so you’ll be better able to evaluate the claims manufacturers are making.

The first order of business is to find out what makes a “quality” sofa.   In looking at what makes a “quality” sofa, I  didn’t pay any attention to the “green” (or not) attributes of each item – we’re simply talking about quality so you’ll be able to evaluate a sofa.  After all, it’s not a “green” option to buy a sofa that you’ll have to replace in two years.  Think about furniture you see in museums that have all their original parts – including fabric – and are often hundreds of years old.  That’s what quality components can do for you.

These are the components of a typical sofa:

  • Wood
  • Foam (most commonly) or other cushion filling
  • Fabric
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Glue
    • Varnish/paint
    • Metal springs
    • Thread
    • Jute webbing
    • Twine

The frame, seating support, cushion filling and decorative fabric all determine your sofa’s level of comfort, and its ability to retain its shape and stability in the years to come.  

How long a sofa will last, and retain its shape,  depends largely on the frame, and a high quality sofa will always have a strong, sturdy one.  A higher quality sofa uses kiln-dried hardwoods  – this process removes all moisture from the frame, enabling it to retain its shape and stability over a long period of time.  Green and/or knotted wood can shrink or crack.   Some better quality sofas use plywood, but if you have to choose a sofa with plywood, make sure it has 11 – 13 layers of plywood and not fewer. Lower quality sofas use particleboard /MDF board.

In a high quality sofa, special attention is paid to the joints, which are dowelled or screwed into place rather than glued.  Some manufacturers even cut costs by using watered down glue.  Joints are secured with corner blocking, dowels and screws, which last longer than just glue and staples.

Regarding seating support:

  • The best seating support is the eight-way hand tied springs system. The craftsman connects each spring to the adjoining one with a strong twine. The twine passes front to back, side to side and then diagonally in both directions thus tying each spring securely.
  • Another seating support system is sinuous spring construction. Sinuous springs are “S” shaped and run from the front of the seat to the back. These springs are supported by additional wires that cross from side to side. This also makes for a strong seat, and it might be the preferred option in a sleeker style as it requires less space.
  • The third option is web suspension in which bands of webbing cross the seat and back. These are then attached to the frame to make a platform for the cushions. Webbing can be made of either natural or man-made fibers, and if used alone doesn’t make for very strong support. However, in better quality sofas, it can be used with a tensioner that fastens the webbing securely to the frame. The web suspension is the least preferable of the seating support options.

Ticking is used between the upholstery foam or latex and the decorative fabric cover; stitches are even and not bunched.

The most common filling used in sofa cushions is high density polyurethane.   Density is measured in pounds per cubic foot (PCF).  And of course there is a lot of variability in density –  it  can run from 1.2 PCF for lowest quality foam, to 1.7 PCF for average quality sofa cushions and up to 2.2 PCF for high quality cushions.   Firmness and resiliency are qualities that make a higher quality foam.  Natural latex is another filling option, and also comes in varying densities.  The lifespan of polyurethane averages 10 years; latex is supposed to have double that life expectancy.  Before there was polyurethane foam, however, people used a variety of materials, such as horsehair and cotton or wool batting.

Fillings can be wrapped in softer material such as wool, cotton or Dacron, which is the cheapest option. Down is considered to be the premium filling choice, and is among the most expensive choices, but cushions filled only with down require daily maintenance. High quality down cushions will have down proof ticking under the upholstery fabric to prevent feathers from poking through.

Down used in combination with other materials is another option, but also expensive. Pads made out of a Dacron® polyester fiber and down, known as Blendown pads, are wrapped around high density foam.  These pads can also be used with springs that have been wrapped up in foam. High density foam surround the springs that are then wrapped in down pads. The result is a soft surface with a strong, resilient support inside. This is a good option as the cushions do not lose their shape easily.





Bioplastics – are they the answer?

16 04 2012

From Peak Energy blog; August 27, 2008

From last week’s blog post, we discussed how bio based plastics do indeed save energy during the production of the polymers, and produce fewer greenhouse gasses during the process.  Yet right off the bat, it could be argued that carbon footprints may be an irrelevant measurement,  because it has been established that plants grow more quickly and are more drought and heat resistant in a CO2 enriched atmosphere!   Many studies have shown that worldwide food production has risen, possibly by as much as 40%, due to the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.[1] Therefore, it is both ironic and a significant potential problem for biopolymer production if the increased CO2 emissions from human activity were rolled back, causing worldwide plant growth to decline. This in turn would greatly increase the competition for biological sources of food and fuel – with biopolymers coming in last place.[2]  But that’s probably really stretching the point.

The development of bioplastics holds the potential of renewability, biodegradation, and a path away from harmful additives. They are not, however, an automatic panacea.  Although plant-based plastics appeal to green-minded consumers thanks to their renewable origins,  their production carries environmental costs that make them less green than they may seem.  It’s important to remember that bioplastics, just like regular plastics, are synthetic polymers; it’s just that plants are being used instead of oil to obtain the carbon and hydrogen needed for polymerization.

It’s good marketing, but bad honesty, as they say, because there are so many types of plastics and bioplastics that you don’t know what you’re getting in to;  bioplastics are much more complicated than biofuels.  There are about two dozen different ways to create a bioplastic, and each one has different properties and capabilities.

Actually the term “bioplastic” is pretty meaningless, because some bioplastics are actually made from oil – they’re called “bioplastics” because they are biodegradeable.  That causes much confusion because plastics made from oil can be biodegradeable whereas some plant-based  bioplastics are not. So the term bioplastics can refer either to the raw material (biomass) or, in the case of oil-based plastic, to its biodegradability.  The problem with biodegradability and compostability is that there is no agreement as to what that actually means either,  and under what circumstances

You might also see the term “oxo-degradable”.   Oxo-degradables look like plastic, but they are not. It is true that the material falls apart, but that is because it contains metal salts which cause it to disintegrate rapidly into tiny particles. Then you cannot see it anymore, but it is still there, in the ocean too. Just as with conventional plastics, these oxo-degradables release harmful substances when they are broken down.

Let’s re-visit  some of the reasons bioplastics are supposed to be an environmental benefit:

  • Because it’s made from plants, which are organic, they’re good for the planet.  Polymer bonds can be created from oil, gas or plant materials. The use of plant materials does not imply that the resulting polymer will be organic or more environmentally friendly. You could make non-biodegradable, toxic plastic out of organic corn!
  • Bioplastics are biodegradable. Although made from materials that can biodegrade, the way that material is turned into plastic  makes it difficult (if not impossible) for the materials to naturally break down.  There are bioplastics made from vegetable matter (maize or grass, for example) which are no more biodegradable than any other plastics, says Christiaan Bolck of Food & Biobased Research.[3]  Bioplastics do not universally biodegrade in normal conditions  –  some require special, rare conditions to decompose, such as high heat composting facilities, while others may simply take decades or longer to break down again, mitigating the supposed benefits of using so-called compostable plastics material. There are no independent standards for what even constitutes “biodegradable plastic.”  Sorona makes no claim to break down in the environment; Ingeo is called “compostable” (though it can only be done in industrial high heat composters). Close studies of so-called degradable plastics have shown that some only break down to plastic particles which are so small they can’t be seen  (“out of sight, out of mind”), which are more easily ingested by animals. Indeed, small plastic fragments of this type may also be better able to attract and concentrate pollutants such as DDT and PCB.[4]
  • Bioplastics are recyclable. Because bioplastics come in dozens of varieties, there’s no way to make sure you’re getting the right chemicals in the recycling vat – so although some bioplastics are recyclable, the recycling facilities won’t separate them out.  Cargill Natureworks insists that PLA  can in theory be recycled, but in reality it is likely to be confused with polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  In October 2004, a group of recyclers and recycling advocates issued a joint call for Natureworks to stop selling PLA for bottle applications until the recycling questions were addressed.[5]  But the company claims that levels of PLA in the recycling stream are too low to be considered a contaminant.  The process of recycling bioplastics is cumbersome and expensive – they present a real problem for recyclers because they cannot be handled using conventional processes. Special equipment and facilities are often needed. Moreover, if bioplastics commingle with traditional plastics, they contaminate all of the other plastics, which forces waste management companies to reject batches of otherwise recyclable materials.
  • Bioplastics are non-toxicBecause they’re not made from toxic inputs (as are oil based plastics), bioplastics have the reputation for being non toxic.  But we’re beginning to see the same old toxic chemicals produced from a different (plant-based) source of carbon. Example:  Solvay’s bio-based PVC uses phthalates,  requires chlorine during production, and produces dioxins during manufacture, recycling and disposal. As one research group commissioned by the European Bioplastics Association was forced to admit, with regard to PVC,  “The use of bio-based ethylene is …  unlikely to reduce the environmental impact of PVC with respect to its toxicity potential.[6]

The arguments against supporting bioplastics include the fact that they are corporate owned, they compete with food, they bolster industrial agriculture and lead us deeper into genetic engineering, synthetic biology and nanotechnology.  I am not with those who think we shouldn’t go there, because we sorely need scientific inquiry  and eventually we might even get it right.  But, for example, today’s industrial agriculture is not, in my opinion, sustainable, and the genetic engineering we’re doing is market driven with no altruistic motive. 

If properly designed, biodegradable plastics have the potential to become a much-preferred alternative to conventional plastics. The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative (SBC)[7] is a coalition of organizations that advances the introduction and use of biobased products. They seek to replace dependence on materials made from harmful fossil fuels with a new generation of materials made from plants – but the shift they propose is more than simply a change of materials.  They promote (according to their website): sustainability standards, practical tools, and effective policies to drive and shape the emerging markets for these products.  They also refer to “sustainable bioplastics” rather than simply “bioplastics”.  In order to be a better choice, these sustainable bioplastics must be:

  • Derived from non-food, non-GMO source materials – like algae rather than GMO corn, or from sustainably grown and harvested cropland or forests;
  • Safe for the environment during use;
  • Truly compostable and biodegradable;
  • Free of toxic chemicals during the manufacturing and recycling process;
  • Manufactured without hazardous inputs and impacts (water, land and chemical use are considerations);
  • Recyclable in a cradle-to-cradle cycle.

Currently, manufacturers are not responsible for the end-life of their products. Once an item leaves their factories, it’s no longer the company’s problem. Therefore, we don’t have a system by which adopters of these new bioplastics would be responsible for recovering, composting, recycling, or doing whatever needs to be done with them after use. Regarding toxicity, the same broken and ineffective regulatory system is in charge of approving bioplastics for food use, and there is no reason to assume that these won’t raise just as many health concerns as conventional plastics have. Yet again, it will be an uphill battle to ban those that turn out to be dangerous.

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology traces the full impact of plastic production all the way back to its source for several types of plastics.[8]   Study author Amy Landis of the University of Pittsburgh says, “The main concern for us is that these plant-derived products have a green stamp on them just because they’re derived from biomass.  It’s not true that they should be considered sustainable. Just because they’re plants doesn’t mean they’re green.”

The researchers found that while making bioplastics requires less fossil fuel and has a lower impact on global warming, they have higher impacts for eutrophication, eco-toxicity and production of human carcinogens.  These impacts came largely from fertilizer use, pesticide use and conversion of lands to agricultural fields, along with processing the bio-feedstocks into plastics, the authors reported.

According to the study, polypropylene topped the team’s list as having the least life-cycle impact, while PVC and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) were ranked as having the highest life-cycle impact.

But as the Plastic Pollution Coalition tells us, it’s not so much changing the material itself that needs changing – it’s our uses of the stuff itself.  We are the problem:   If we continue to buy single-use disposable objects such as plastic bottles and plastic bags, with almost 7 billion people on the planet, our throwaway culture will continue to harm the environment, no matter what it’s made of.

The Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation has a list of ten easy things you can do to keep plastics out of our environment:

  1. Choose to reuse when it comes to  shopping bags and bottled water.  Cloth bags and metal or glass reusable  bottles are available locally at great prices.
  2. Refuse single-serving packaging, excess  packaging, straws and other ‘disposable’ plastics.  Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at bbq’s, potlucks or take-out  restaurants.
  3. Reduce everyday plastics such as sandwich bags and juice cartons by replacing them with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a thermos.
  4. Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them. A great  way to reduce lids, plastic cups and/or plastic-lined cups.
  5. Go digital! No need for plastic cds,  dvds and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online.
  6. Seek out alternatives to the plastic  items that you rely on.
  7. Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled      plastics. Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates.
  8. Volunteer at a beach cleanup. Surfrider Foundation Chapters often hold cleanups monthly or more frequently.
  9. Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene  foam bans and bottle recycling bills.
  10. Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to Rise Above Plastics!

[1] See for example: Idso, Craig, “Estimates of Global Food Production in the year 2050”, Center for the Study of Carbon dioxide and Global Change, 2011  AND  Wittwer, Sylvan, “Rising Carbon Dioxide is Great for Plants”, Policy Review, 1992  AND  http://www.ciesin.org/docs/004-038/004-038a.html

[2] D. B. Lobell and C. B. Field, Global scale climate-crop yield relationships and the impacts of recent warming, Env. Res. Letters 2, pp. 1–7, 2007 AND L. H. Ziska and J. A. Bunce, Predicting the impact of changing CO2 on crop yields: some thoughts on food, New Phytologist 175, pp. 607–618, 2007.

[3] Sikkema, Albert, “What we Don’t Know About Bioplastics”, Resource, December 2011; http://resource.wur.nl/en/wetenschap/detail/what_we_dont_know_about_bioplastics

[4] Chandler Slavin, “Bio-based resin report!” Recyclable Packaging Blog May 19, 2010 online at http://recyclablepackaging.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/bio-based-resin-report

[6] L. Shen, “Product Overview and Market Projection of Emerging Bio- Based Plastics,” PRO-BIP 2009, Final Report, June 2009





Bioplastics

9 04 2012

The first plastic garbage bag was invented by Harry Waslyk in 1950.

1950!  Mr. Waslyk could not have predicted how much havoc his plastic child would wreck in a mere 62 years.[1]

We’ve all seen the pictures of birds stomachs filled with plastic detritus and read about the Great Pacific Gyre, but I just read a new twist to that story:    the Emirates News Agency reported that decomposed remains of camels in the desert region of the United Arab Emirates revealed that 50% of the camels died from swallowing and choking on plastic bags.  “Rocks of calcified plastic weighing up to 60 kilograms are found in camel stomachs every day,” said Dr. Ulrich Wernery, Scientific Director, Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, whose clinic conducts hundreds of post-mortems on camels, gazelles, sheep and cows in the UAE.  He adds that one in two camels die from plastic.[2]

Plastic has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that plastics are among the debris orbiting our planet. Unfortunately, our wildlife and domestic animals are paying the price now; I think we ourselves will see changes in future generations.

It’s no wonder we’re scrambling to find alternatives to plastic, and one hot topic in the research area is that of bioplastics.

Bioplastics are made (usually) from plant materials.  Enzymes are used to break starch in the plant into glucose, which is fermented and made into lactic acid.  This lactic acid is polymerized and converted into a plastic called polylactic acid (PLA), which can be used in the manufacture of products  ( PLA is about 20% more expensive than petroleum-based plastic)  or into a plastic  called polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA (PHA biodegrades more easily but is more than double the price of regular plastic).

The bioplastic market is expanding rapidly and by 2030, according to some estimates, could account for 10% of the total plastics market.   In the world of fabrics and furnishings, the new biotech products which are being heavily promoted are Ingeo and Sorona, both PLA based fibers with a growing share of the fabric market; and soy-based foam for upholstery.    Toray Industries has announced that they will have the first functional performance nylon and polyester textiles based on biomass ready for the 2013/14 season.  They are 100% bio-based fabrics [3] based on the castor plant, which is very robust, growing in dry farming areas and requiring significantly fewer pesticides and herbicides than other crops.

So it’s no wonder that there has been much discussion about bioplastics, and about whether there are ecological advantages to using biomass instead of oil.

The arguments in favor of bioplastics are:

  • They are good for the environment because there is no harm done to the earth when recovering fossil fuels. Also, in this process there are very few greenhouse gas and harmful carbon emissions. Regular plastics need oil for their manufacturing, which pollutes the environment.
  • They require less energy to produce than petroleum-based plastics.
  • They are recyclable.
  • They are non toxic.
  • They reduce dependence on foreign oil.
  • They are made from renewable resources.

These arguments sound pretty good – until you begin to dig  and find out that once again, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Regarding the first two arguments (they are good for the environment because they produce significantly fewer CO2 emissions and less energy) –  there have not been many studies which support  this argument until recently.  Recently,  several  studies have been published which seems to support that  this is indeed the case:

  1. Ramani Narayan of Michigan State University found that “the results for the use of fossil energy resources and GHG emissions are more favorable for most bio based polymers than for oil based. As an exception, landfilling of biodegradable polymers can result in methane emissions (unless landfill gas is captured) which may make the system unattractive in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”[4]
  2. University of Pittsburgh researchers did an LCA on the environmental impacts of both petroleum and bio derived plastics, assessing them using metrics which included  economy, mass from renewable sources, biodegradability, percent recycled, distance of furthest feedstock, price, life cycle health hazards and life cycle energy use. They found that  biopolymers are the more eco-friendly material in terms of energy use and emissions created.  However, they also concluded that traditional plastics can actually be less environmentally taxing to produce when taking into account such things as acidification, carcinogens, ecotoxicity, eutrophication, global warming, smog, fossil fuel depletion, and ozone depletion.[5]
  3. A study done by the nova-Institut GmbH on behalf of Proganic GmbH & Co.[6]showed unambiguously positive eco advantages (in terms of energy use and CO2 emissions) for bio based polymers PLA and PHA/PHB over petrochemical based plastics.  According to the report, “the emission of greenhouse gases and also the use of fossil raw materials are definitely diminished. Therefore the substitution of petrochemical plastics with bio-based plastics yields positive impacts in the categories of climate change and depletion of fossil resources.”  The results include:
    1. Greenhouse gas emissions of bio-based plastics amount to less than 3 KG of CO2 equivalents per KG of plastic, less than that of petrochemical based plastics which produce an average of 6 KG of CO2 equivalents per KG of plastic..
    2. the production of bio-based polymers, in comparison to all petrochemical plastics examined, leads to savings in fossil resources. The biggest savings potential can be found in comparison with polycarbonate (PC). The average savings potential in the production of PLA amounts to 56 ± 13 megajoules per kilogram of plastics here.
    3. The production of bio-based polymers in comparison with the production of petrochemical plastics in most cases also leads to greenhouse gas emission savings. The biggest greenhouse gas emission savings can be found again when comparing bio-based polymers to polycarbonate (PC). For PLA, the average savings potential in this case amounts to 4.7 ± 1.5 kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of plastics. For PHA, the average savings potential in this case amounts to 5.8 ± 2.7 kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of plastics. In comparison with PET and Polystyrene (PS), considerable savings potentials ranging between 2.5 and 4.2 kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of plastics are to be found in the production of bio-based polymers. The lowest savings potential are to be found when comparing bio-based polymers with polypropylene (PP).

So I will accept the arguments that biobased plastics produce fewer  greenhouse gases and harmful carbon emissions and require less energy to produce than petroleum-based plastics .  They also certainly reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

But are they better for the environment?  Are they recyclable or biodegradeable?  Are they safe?  Are plastics producers aware of the impact of promoting bioplastics as a replacement for plastics? We think that  bioplastics are useful for certain purposes, such as medical sutures or strewing foil for mulching in agriculture – but as a replacement for all plastics?

Next week we’ll take a look at the arguments against bioplastics.


[1] Laylin, Tafline, “Half of UAE’s Falaj Mualla Camels Choked on Plastic Bags”, Green Prophet blog, June 11, 2010.

http://www.greenprophet.com/2010/06/camels-choke-on-plastic/

[2] Ibid.

[4] Narayan, Ramani, “Review and Analysis of Bio-based Product LCA’s”, Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824

[5] Tabone, Michaelangelo D., et al; “Sustainability Metrics: Life Cycle Assessment and Green Design in Polymers”, Enviornmental Science and Technology, September 2, 2010.