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.

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Listmania: LBC Red List and others

19 06 2012

I love lists – you know, all those “best of” lists – movies, books, toxic chemicals.

Having a list makes it easy for us to tick off those bad chemicals that nobody wants to live with.  And in the building industry there have been a proliferation of lists which identify chemicals of concern:  the Perkins & Will Precautionary List, the LEED Pilot 11 and the Living Building Challenge Red List, among others.  And make no mistake, we think it’s critical that we begin to develop these lists, because we all need a baseline.   As long as we need to eat and breathe, toxics should be an important consideration.  We just have a problem with  how these lists are used.

So let me explain.

First, lists for the most part are developed on the basis of science that usually occurred five or 10 years ago, so they can  (though not always) be lagging indicators of safety to humans and the environment.  (But that’s a minor point, just wanted us to remember to maintain those lists.)

When using lists, it’s important to remember the concept of reactive chemistry:  many of the chemicals, though possibly deemed to be benign themselves, will react with other chemicals to create a third substance which is toxic.   This reaction can occur during the production of inputs, during the manufacture of the final product, or at the end of life (burning at the landfill, decomposing or biodegrading).   So isn’t it important to know the manufacturing supply chain and the composition of all the products – even those which do not contain any chemicals of concern on the list you’re using – to make sure there are no, say … dioxins created during the burning of the product at the landfill, for example?

It’s also important to remember that  chemicals are synergistic  – toxins can make each other more toxic.  A small dose of mercury that kills 1 in 100 rats and a dose of aluminum that will kill 1 in 100 rats, when combined, have a striking effect: all the rats die.  So if the product you’re evaluating is to be used in a way that introduces a chemical which might react with those in your product, shouldn’t that be taken into consideration?

So, O.K., the two problems above would be extremely difficult to define  – I mean, wouldn’t you need a degree in chemistry, not to mention the time and money, to determine if these could occur .  The average consumer wouldn’t have a clue.  Just wanted you to know that these problems do exist and contribute to our precautionary admonition regarding lists.

Each list has a slightly different interpretation – and lists different chemicals.  The Healthy Building Network published this Venn diagram of several of the most prevalent lists used in building materials:

The real reason we don’t like the way lists are used is that people see the list, are convinced by a manufacturer that their product doesn’t contain any of the chemicals listed, so without any further ado the product is used.

What does that mean in the textile industry, for example?

By attempting to address all product types, most lists do not mention many of the toxic chemicals which ARE used in textile processing. In the Living Building Challenge Red List, no mention is made of polyester, the most popular fiber for interiors, which itself is made from two toxic ingredients (ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid – both carcinogens, neither of which are on the list).  That means  a fabric made of polyester – even recycled polyester – that has been processed using some pretty nasty chemicals – could be specified.   Chemicals which are commonly used in textile processing  and which are NOT included on the Living Building Challenge Red List, for example,  but which have been found to be harmful , include:

Chlorine   (sodium hypochlorite NaOCL); registered in the Toxic Substances Control Act   as hypochlorous acid ; sodium chlorite
Sodium cyanide;   potassium cyanide
sodium sulfate   (Na2SO4)
Sodium sulfide
 APEOs ( Alkylphenolethoxylates)
Chromium III   and VI (hexavalent chromium)
Zinc
Copper
pentachlorophenol   (PCP)
permethrin
Dichloromethane   (DCM, methylene chloride)
Tetrachloroethylene   (also known as perchloroethylene, perc and PCE)
Methyl ethyl   ketone
Toluene:   toluene diisocyanate and other aromatic amines
Methanol (wood   alcohol)
Chloroform;   methyl chloroform
Arsenic
Phosphates   (concentrated phosphoric acid)
Dioxin –   by-product of chlorine bleaching; also formed during synthesis of certain   textile chemicals
Benzenes and   benzidines; nitrobenzene; C3 alkyl benzenes; C4 alkyl benzenes
Sulfuric Acid
Optical   brighteners: includes several hundred substances, including triazinyl   flavonates; distyrylbiphenyl sulfonate
Acrylonitrile
ethylenediaminetetra   acetic acid [EDTA]
diethylenetriaminepenta   acetic acid [DTPA]
Perfluorooctane   sulfonates (PFOS)

In the case of arsenic (used in textile printing and in pesticides) and pentachlorophenol (used as a biocide in textile processing) – the Living Building Challenge Red List expressly forbids use in wood treatments only, so using it in a textile would qualify as O.K.

Perhaps we should manufacture with a “green list” in mind: substituting chemicals and materials that are inherently safer, ideally with a long history of use (so as to not introduce completely new hazards)?

But using any list of chemicals of concern ignores what we consider to be the most important aspect needing amelioration in textile processing – that of water treatment.  Because the chemicals used by the textile industry include many that are persistent and/or bioaccumulative which can interfere with hormone systems in people and animals and may be carcinogenic and reprotoxic, and because the industry often ignores water treatment even when it is required (chasing the lowest cost) the cost of dumping untreated effluent into our water is incalculable.

The textile industry uses a LOT of water – according to the World Bank, 20% of industrial freshwater pollution is from the textile industry; that’s another way of saying that it’s the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet.  In India alone textile effluent averages around 425,000,000 gallons per day, largely untreated[1].   The chemically infused effluent – saturated with dyes, de-foamers, detergents, bleaches, optical brighteners, equalizers and many other chemicals –  is often released into the local river, where it enters the groundwater, drinking water, the habitat of flora and fauna, and our food chain.  The production of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were banned in USA more than 30 years ago (maybe that’s why they’re not listed on any of these lists?), but are still showing up in the environment as unintended byproducts of  the chlorination of wastes in sewage disposal plants that have a large input of biphenyls (used as a dye carrier) from textile effluent.[2]

Please click HERE to see the PDF by Greenpeace on their new campaign on textile effluent entitled  “Dirty Laundry”, which points the finger at compliant corporations which basically support what they call the “broken system”.  It asks corporations to become champions for a post toxic world, by putting in place policies to eliminate the use and release of all hazardous chemicals across a textile company’s entire supply chain based on a precautionary approach to chemicals management, to include the whole product lifecycle and releases from all pathways.

Another problem in the textile industry which is often overlooked is that of end of life disposal.  Textile waste in the UK, as reported by The Ecologist, has risen from 7% of all waste sent to landfills to 30% in 2010.[3]  The US EPA estimates that textile waste account for 5% of all landfill waste in the U.S.[4]  And that waste slowly seeps chemicals into our groundwater, producing environmental burdens for future generations.  Textile sludge is often composted, but if untreated,  that compost is toxic for plants.[5]

What about burning:    In the United States, over 40 million pounds of still bottom sludge from the production of ethylene glycol (one of the components of PET fibers) is generated each year. When incinerated, the sludge produces 800,000 lbs of fly ash containing antimony, arsenic and other metals.[6]

These considerations are often neglected in looking at environmental pollution by textile mills[7] – but is never a consideration on a list of chemicals of concern.

So yes, let’s recognize that there are chemicals which need to be identified as being bad, but let’s also look at each product and make some kind of attempt to address any other areas of concern which the manufacture of that product might raise.  Using a list doesn’t get us off the hook.


[1] CSE study on pollution of Bandi river by textile industries in Pali town, Centre for Science and Environment,New Delhi, May 2006 and “Socio-Economic, Environmental and Clean Technology Aspects of Textile Industries in Tiruppur,South India”, Prakash Nelliyat, Madras School of Economics.  See also:

Jacks Gunnar et al (1995), “The Environmental Cost of T-Shirts”, Sharing Common Water Resources, First Policy Advisory Committee Meeting, SIDA, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

Also:  CSE: Down to Earth Supplement on Water use inIndia, “To use or to misuse”;  http://www.cseindia.org/dte-supplement/industry20040215/misuse.htm

[3] Ecologist, “’Primark effect’ sill clogging up UK landfills”, January 19, 2010,  http://www.newsinferno.com/legal-news/possible-link-between-formaldehyde-lou-gehrigs-disease-found/2926

[5] Scientia Agricola, vol. 62, no 3 May/June 2005

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

[7] Assuming a beginning value of 375ppm of antimony in an undyed polyester fiber, as much as 175ppm of antimony can be leached from the fiber during the dyeing process. This seemingly insignificant amount translates into a burden on water treatment facilities and is still a hazardous waste when precipitated out during treatment. The U.S. EPA lists the allowable limit for antimony in drinking water to be 6 parts per billion (ppb). Countries that can afford technologies that precipitate the metals out of the water are left with a hazardous sludge that must then be disposed of in a properly managed landfill or incinerator operations. Countries who cannot, or who are unwilling to employ these end-of-pipe treatments, release antimony along with a host of other dangerous substances to open waters. Victor Defining Sustainability, http://www.victor-innovatex.com/doc/sustainability.pdf





How to buy safe fabric

24 02 2012

Design decisions influence our health.  Our children start life with umbilical cords infused with chemicals that affect the essence of human life itself  –   the ability to learn, reason and reproduce.  Google’s project coordinator for real estate, Anthony Ravitz, said that Google is trying to use safe building materials because:

  • By focusing on the “health and vitality” of their employees, they can avoid illness
  • –  because healthcare is costly.

One of the presenters at last year’s Living Building Challenge, inspired by writer Michael Pollan’s Food Rules,  shared a list of ways to choose products that remove the worst of the chemical contamination that plagues many products. 

These rules apply to all products, including fabrics, so I’ve just edited them a bit to be fabric specific:

  • If it is cheap, it probably has hidden costs.
  • If it starts as a toxic input (like ethylene glycol in the manufacture of polyester), you probably don’t want it in your house or office.
  • Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.
  • Use carbohydrate-based materials (i.e., natural fibers) when you can.
  • Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.
  • Pay more, use less.
  • Consult your nose – if it stinks, don’t use it.
  • If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it. (note: this is not just the fibers used to weave the fabric – did the processing use specific chemicals, like heavy metals in the dyestuff, or formaldehyde in the finish?)
  • Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not.
  • Question materials that make health claims.
  • Regard space-age materials with skepticism.




Printing – part 2

13 01 2012

Bear with me – I’ll eventually get to the environmental aspects of printing – including digital printing.  But I think it’s important to know the basic steps and processes in order to be able to understand green claims.  So there will still be a Printing – part 3 before we get to the environmental topics.

Specific fiber materials and dye types interact with each other in well defined ways, and it is these interactions that determines the best composition of a printing paste or ink.  The preparation of this paste is one of the most important steps in printing. (note:  paste and ink seem to be interchangeable names for the same substances).

It requires a set of special characteristics  – one of the most important is that the paste be viscous (like paint or pudding).

Printing paste ready to use.

This quality is called “flow”.  The choice of an agent to create this flow (called a thickening agent) is a critical component. In addition, each printing method we talked about last week (flat bed, screen or rotary), as well as the nature and sequence of fixation and aftertreatment steps  requires a specific kind of printing ink or paste.

For direct printing, a printing paste is prepared by dissolving the dyes in hot water to which is added urea and a solvent (ethylene glycol, thioethylene glycol, sometimes glycerine or a similar substance – and sometimes water).   This solution is stirred into a thickener that is easily removed by washing.  Small amounts of oxidizing agents are added.[1]

After making the printing paste, it is essential to strain or sieve all colours in order to free them from lumps, fine sand, and other foreign objects, which would inevitably damage the highly polished surface of the engraved rollers and result in bad printing. Every scratch on the surface of a roller prints a fine line in the cloth, and too much care, therefore, cannot be taken to remove, as far as possible, all grit and other hard particles from every color.

The straining is usually done by squeezing the paste through filter cloths as artisanal fine cotton, silk or industrial woven nylon. Fine sieves can also be employed for pastes that are used hot or are very strongly alkaline or acid.

All the necessary ingredients for the paste are metered (dosed) and mixed together in a mixing station. Since between 5 and 10 different printing pastes are usually necessary to print a single pattern (in some cases up to 20 different pastes are applied), in order to reduce losses, due to incorrect measurement, the preparation of the pastes is done in automatic stations. In modern plants, with the help of special devices, the exact amount of printing paste required is determined and prepared in continuous mode for each printing position, thus reducing leftovers at the end of the run.

There are two main types of paste used:

  1. Pigmented emulsions: Pigmented emulsions are suitable for all fiber types,  they are able to dry by evaporation at room temperature and are able to be cured at 320 degrees F for 2 – 3 minutes, which achieves washing and drycleaning fastness.  A typical formulation of a pigment emulsion printing paste is:

COMPONENTS

RATIO

Water

10%

Emulsifier

1%

Thickener

4%

White spirit

62%

Catalyst solution

3%

Binder

15%

Pigment dispersion

5%

Pastes which are entirely water-based are obtained by replacing the white spirit  with  water.

  1. Plastisol printing pastes :  based on a vinyl resin dispersed in plasticizer; characterized by virtually 100% non-volatility (no solvent is present); used frequently for printing on dark or dark-colored fabrics.  Components of plastisol printing pastes consist of
    1. PVC homopolymer (i.e., a vinyl resin) dispersed in phthalate plasticizer;
    2.  liquid plasticizer (i.e., dialkyl phthalate or di-iso-octyl phthalate);
    3. heat and light stabilisers (i.e., liquid barium/cadmium/zinc combined with epoxy plasticizer);
    4.  high proportion of extender to improve wet-on-wet properties.

Printing pastes are made up of four main components:

  1. The coloring matter used (dyes or pigments)
  2. The binding agent
  3. The solvent
  4. The auxiliaries.

The coloring matter used can be either dyestuffs or pigments.   Dyes are in solution and become chemically or physically incorporated into the individual fibers.   The dyes used for printing mostly include vat, reactive, naphthol and disperse colours which have good fastness properties.    Pigments are largely insoluable, so often organic solvents are used (such as benzene or toluene).   The pigmented printing paste must physically bind with the fabric, so must contain a resin, which holds the pigment in place on top of the fabric.

The binder is decisively responsible for the fastness of the pigment prints during use. The most important fastnesses are wash fastness, chemical cleaning fastness and friction fastness. The handle and the brilliance of the colours are also influenced by the choice of binder.
Binders are in general “self-crosslinking polymers” based mainly on acrylates and less commonly on butadiene and vinyl acetate, with solid contents of approx.. 40 – 50%. (2)   Binders made of natural wood resin, wax stand linseed or safflower oils and chitosan were tested in order to obtain biodegradable printing paste.  Promising results were reported when using chitosan as a binder, and no solvent was necessary.

Solvents are usually added in the formulation of the thickeners.  The type of paste (emulsion vs. plastisol) and thickening agent determines the type of solvent needed.  White spirit is a commonly used organic solvent, as is water.  The organic solvent concentration in print pastes may vary from 0% to 60% by weight, with no consistent ratio of organic solvent to water.  Water based solvents may still emit VOC’s from small amounts of solvent and other additives blended into the paste. The liquid waste material of water based pastes may also be considered hazardous waste.

The most important auxiliaries are the thickening agents.  Printing paste normally contains 40 – 70% thickener solution. [3] The printing thickeners used depend on the printing technique and fabric and dyestuff used. Typical thickening agents are starch derivatives, flour, gum Senegal and gum arabic (both very old thickenings, and very expensive today) and albumen. A starch paste is made from wheat starch, cold water, and olive oil, and boiled for thickening.  Starch used to be the most preferred of all the thickenings, but nowadays gums or alginates derived from seaweed is preferred as they allow better penetration of color and are easier to wash out.

Hot water soluble thickening agents as native starch are made into pastes by boiling; the colorants and solvents were added during this step then cooled, after which the various fixing agents would be added.  Colors are reduced in shade by simply adding more stock printing paste.  For example, a dark blue containing 4 oz. of methylene blue per gallon may readily be made into a pale shade by adding to it thirty times its bulk of starch paste or gum, as the case may be. Mechanical agitators are also fitted in these pans to mix the various ingredients together, and to destroy lumps and prevent the formation of lumps, keeping the contents thoroughly stirred up during the whole time they are being boiled and cooled to make a smooth paste. Most thickening agents used today are cold soluble and require less stirring.

Almost exclusively synthetic, acrylate-based thickening agents are used in pigment printing – or none at all, since the mix of resins, solvents and water produces thickening anyway.

Generally, the auxiliaries used for printing are the same as those used in dyeing with a dye bath.  These types of auxiliaries include:

  • Oxidizing  agents (e.g. m-nitrobenzenesulphonate, sodium chlorate, hydrogen peroxide)
  • Reducing  agents (e.g. sodium dithionite, formaldehyde sulphoxylates, thiourea      dioxide, tin(II) chloride)
  • Wetting  agents (nonionic, cationic, anionic)
  • Discharging  agents for discharge printing (e.g. anthraquinone)
  • Humectants   (urea, glycerine, glycols)
  • Carriers:  (cresotinic acid methyl ester,  trichlorobenzene, n-butylphthalimide in combination with other      phthalimides, methylnaphthalene)
  • Retarders  (derivatives of quaternary amines, leveling agents)
  • Resist agents  (zinc oxide, alkalis, amines, complexing agents)
  • Metal  complexes (copper or nickel salts of sarcosine or hydroxyethylsarcosine)
  • Softeners
  • Defoamers,  (e.g. silicon compounds, organic and inorganic esters, aliphatic esters,      etc.)
  • Resins[4]

[1] Ullman’s Fibers, page 766

(2)  Lacasse, K., and Baumann, W., Textile Chemicals: Enviornmental Data and Facts, Springer, 2004; p. 234

[3] Fritz Ullmann, editor,  Ullmann’s Fibers: Textile and dyeing technologies, vol 2; Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co, KGaA, weinheim, 2008, p. 759

[4] Ulmman, p. 743





Do we need a national plastics control law?

20 10 2010

John Wargo wears at least three hats:  he is a professor of environmental policy, risk analysis, and political science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he chairs the Environmental Studies Major at Yale College, and is an advisor to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  He published this opinion on plastics in the United States last year – and I couldn’t have said it better myself:

Since 1950, plastics have quickly and quietly entered the lives and bodies of most people and ecosystems on the planet. In the United States alone, more than 100 billion pounds of resins are formed each year into food and beverage packaging, electronics, building products, furnishings, vehicles, toys, and medical devices. In 2007, the average American purchased more than 220 pounds of plastic, creating nearly $400 billion in sales.

It is now impossible to avoid exposure to plastics. They surround and pervade our homes, bodies, foods, and water supplies, from the plastic diapers and polyester pajamas worn by our children as well as our own sheets, clothing and upholstery,  to the cars we drive and the frying pans in which we cook our food.

The ubiquitous nature of plastics is a significant factor in an unexpected side effect of 20th century prosperity — a change in the chemistry of the human body. Today, most individuals carry in their bodies a mixture of metals, pesticides, solvents, fire retardants, waterproofing agents, and by-products of fuel combustion, according to studies of human tissues conducted across the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children often carry higher concentrations than adults, with the amounts also varying according to gender and ethnicity. Many of these substances are recognized by the governments of the United States and the European Union to be carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive and developmental toxins, or endocrine disruptors that mimic or block human hormones.

Significantly, these chemicals were once thought to be safe at doses now known to be hazardous; as with other substances, the perception of danger grew as governments tested chemicals more thoroughly. Such is the case with Bisphenol-A (BPA), the primary component of hard and clear polycarbonate plastics, which people are exposed to daily through water bottles, baby bottles, and the linings of canned foods.

Given the proven health threat posed by some plastics, the scatter shot and weak regulation of the plastics industry, and the enormous environmental costs of plastics — the plastics industry accounts for 5 percent of the nation’s consumption of petroleum and natural gas, and more than 1 trillion pounds of plastic wastes now sit in U.S. garbage dumps — the time has come to pass a comprehensive national plastics control law.

One might assume the United States already has such a law. Indeed, Congress adopted the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976 intending to manage chemicals such as those polymers used to form plastics. Yet TSCA was and is fundamentally flawed for several reasons that have long been obvious. Nearly 80,000 chemicals are now traded in global markets, and Congress exempted nearly 60,000 of them from TSCA testing requirements. Among 20,000 new compounds introduced since the law’s passage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued permits for all except five, but has required intensive reviews for only 200. This means that nearly all chemicals in commerce have been poorly tested to determine their environmental behavior or effects on human health. The statute’s ineffectiveness has been recognized for decades, yet Congress, the EPA, and manufacturers all share blame for the failure to do anything about it.

In contrast, the European Union in 2007 adopted a new directive known as “REACH” that requires the testing of both older and newly introduced chemicals. Importantly the new regulations create a burden on manufacturers to prove safety; under TSCA the burden rests on EPA to prove danger, and the agency has never taken up the challenge. Unless the U.S. chooses to adopt similar restrictions, U.S. chemical manufacturers will face barriers to their untested exports intended for European markets. Thus the chemical industry itself recognizes the need to harmonize U.S. and EU chemical safety law.

The most promising proposal for reform in the U.S. is the “Kid-Safe Chemical Act,” a bill first introduced in 2008 that would require industry to show that chemicals are safe for children before they are added to consumer products. Such a law is needed because there is little doubt that the growing burden of synthetic chemicals has been accompanied by an increase in the prevalence of many illnesses during the past half-century. These include respiratory diseases (such as childhood asthma), neurological impairments, declining sperm counts, fertility failure, immune dysfunction, breast and prostate cancers, and developmental disorders among the young. Some of these illnesses are now known to be caused or exacerbated by exposure to commercial chemicals and pollutants.

Few people realize how pervasive plastics have become. Most homes constructed since 1985 are wrapped in plastic film such as Tyvek, and many exterior shells are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) siding. Some modern buildings receive water and transport wastes via PVC pipes. Wooden floors are coated with polyurethane finishes and polyvinyl chloride tiles.

Foods and beverages are normally packaged in plastic, including milk bottles made from high-density polyethylene. Most families have at least one “non-stick” pan, often made from Teflon, a soft polymer that can scratch and hitchhike on foods to the dinner table. Between 1997 and 2005, annual sales of small bottles of water — those holding less than one liter — increased from 4 billion to nearly 30 billion bottles.

The billions of video games, computers, MP3 players, cameras, and cell phones purchased each year in the United States use a wide variety of plastic resins. And the almost 7.5 million new vehicles sold in the United States each year contain 2.5 billion pounds of plastic components, which have little hope of being recycled, especially if made from polyvinyl chloride or polycarbonate.  The American Plastics Council now estimates that only about 5 percent of all plastics manufactured are recycled; 95 billion pounds are discarded on average yearly.

The chemical contents of plastics have always been a mystery to consumers. Under federal law, ingredients need not be labeled, and most manufacturers are unwilling or unable to disclose these contents or their sources. Indeed, often the only clue consumers have to the chemical identity of the plastics they use is the voluntary resin code designed to identify products that should and should not be recycled — but it offers little usable information.

The true costs of plastics — including the energy required to manufacture them, the environmental contamination caused by their disposal, their health impacts, and the recycling and eventual disposal costs — are not reflected in product prices.  Adding to the environmental toll, most plastic is produced from natural gas and petroleum products, exacerbating global warming.

Plastics and Human Health

The controversy over BPA — the primary component of hard and clear plastics — and its potential role in human hormone disruption provides the most recent example of the need for a national plastics control law.

Normal growth and development among fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents is regulated in the body by a diverse set of hormones that promote or inhibit cell division. More than a thousand chemicals are now suspected of affecting normal human hormonal activity. These include many pharmaceuticals, pesticides, plasticizers, solvents, metals, and flame retardants.

Scientists’ growing interest in hormone disruption coincided with a consensus within the National Academy of Sciences that children are often at greater risk of health effects than adults because of their rapidly growing but immature organ systems, hormone pathways, and metabolic systems. And many forms of human illness associated with abnormal hormonal activity have become more commonplace during the past several decades, including infertility, breast and prostate cancer, and various neurological problems.

BPA illustrates well the endocrine disruption problem. Each year several billion pounds of BPA are produced in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found, in results consistent with those found in other countries, that 95 percent of human urine samples tested have measurable BPA levels. BPA has also been detected in human serum, breast milk, and maternal and fetal plasma. BPA travels easily across the placenta, and levels in many pregnant women and their fetuses were similar to those found in animal studies to be toxic to the reproductive organs of the animals’ male and female offspring.

Government scientists believe that the primary source of human BPA exposure is foods, especially those that are canned, as BPA-based epoxy resins can migrate from the resins into the foods. In 1997, the FDA found that BPA migrated from polycarbonate water containers — such as the five-gallon water jugs found in offices — into water at room temperature and that concentrations increased over time. Another study reported that boiling water in polycarbonate bottles increased the rate of migration by up to 55-fold, suggesting that it would be wise to avoid filling polycarbonate baby bottles with boiling water to make infant formula from powders.

Scientists have reported BPA detected in nonstick-coated cookware, PVC stretch film used for food packaging, recycled paperboard food boxes, and clothing treated with fire retardants.

Since 1995 numerous scientists have reported that BPA caused health effects in animals that were similar to diseases becoming more prevalent in humans, abnormal penile or urethra development in males, obesity and type 2 diabetes, and immune system disorders. BPA can bind with estrogen receptors in cell membranes following part-per-trillion doses — exposures nearly 1,000 times lower than the EPA’s recommended acceptable limit.

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health convened a panel of 38 scientists to review the state of research on BPA-induced health effects. The panel, selected for its independence from the plastics industry, issued a strong warning about the chemical’s hazards:

“There is chronic, low level exposure of virtually everyone in developed countries to BPA… The wide range of adverse effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals exposed both during development and in adulthood is a great cause for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans.”

The American Chemistry Council, which advocates for the plastics industry, has criticized most scientific research that has reported an association between BPA and adverse health effects. The council’s complaints have included claims that sample sizes are too small, that animals are poor models for understanding hazards to humans, that doses administered in animal studies are normally far higher than those experienced by humans, that the mechanism of chemical action is poorly understood, and that health effects among those exposed are not necessarily “adverse.”

Research on plastics, however, now comprises a large and robust literature reporting adverse health effects in laboratory animals and wildlife at even low doses. Claims of associations between BPA and hormonal activity in humans are strengthened by consensus that everyone is routinely exposed and by the rising incidence of many human diseases similar to those induced in animals dosed with the chemical. Two competing narratives — one forwarded by independent scientists and the other promoted by industry representatives — have delayed government action to protect the health of citizens through bans or restrictions.

Action Needed

How has the plastics industry escaped serious regulation by the federal government, especially since other federally regulated sectors that create environmental or health risks such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, motor vehicles, and tobacco have their own statutes? In the case of plastics, Congress instead has been content with limited federal regulatory responsibility, now fractured among at least four agencies: the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. None of these agencies has demanded pre-market testing of plastic ingredients, none has required ingredient labeling or warnings on plastic products, and none has limited production, environmental release, or human exposure. As a result, the entire U.S. population continues to be exposed to hormonally active chemicals from plastics without their knowledge or consent.

What should be done? The Kids Safe Chemical Act represents a comprehensive solution that would apply to all commercial chemicals including plastic ingredients. Yet the nation’s chemical companies, with their enormous political power, are not likely to agree to assume the testing costs, nor are they likely to accept a health protective standard. Rather than pass another weak statute, Congress should consider a stronger alternative.

The nation needs a comprehensive plastics control law, just as we have national laws to control firms that produce other risky products, such as pesticides. Key elements of a national plastics policy should include:

  • tough  government regulations that demand pre-market testing and prohibit chemicals that do not quickly degrade into harmless compounds. Exempting previously permitted ingredients from this evaluation makes little sense, as older chemicals have often been proven more dangerous than newer ones.
  • The chemical industry itself needs to replace persistent and hazardous chemicals with those that are proven to be safe.  Plastics ingredients found to pose a significant threat to the environment or human health should be quickly phased out of production. Congress chose this approach to manage pesticide hazards, and it has proven to be reasonably effective since the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996.
  • Federal redemption fees for products containing plastics should be set at levels tied to chemical persistence, toxicity, and production volume. These fees should be high enough that consumers have a strong incentive to recycle.
  • We need mandatory labeling of plastic ingredients, in order to allow consumers to make responsible choices in the marketplace.
  • Finally, manufacturers should take responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination from the more than one trillion pounds of plastic wastes they have produced over the past 50 years.




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

22 09 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Are these viable claims?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Does “soy based foam” deliver on its promise?

27 01 2010

In last week’s 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 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 (called “solid gasoline” by fire experts) – 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 within 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. 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.

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“, 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.

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!”