Materials Factsheet

Polyurethane Foam Filling

Background

Whether they're individual items or part of an upholstered piece of furniture, cushions need a filler.

And while our grandparents would have used feathers, horsehair, wool or cotton batting, the advent of plastics brought new made-made options.

The most commonly used type of filling now is polyurethane foam.

Also known as “Polyfoam”, it's been the standard fill in most furniture since its widespread introduction in the 1960’s thanks to its low cost. A staggering 1 million tonnes of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil.

The production process involves the careful handling of two main chemical ingredients: polyols (itself created from achemical reaction) and diisocyanates (most commonly Toluene diisocyanate (TDI)).

Polyurethane foam has some positive performance qualities:

Structure - it holds its shape well.

Versatile - can be easily moulded into various shapes.

Cost - it’s cheap.

Availability - widely available.

It doesn’t have a single environmental positive.

polyurethane foam production methods do have huge environmental impacts:

Fire risk - polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline”. Flame-retardants are therefore added to its production before it can be used.

Toxic and carcinogenic in use - there area number of toxins and carcinogens relating to polyurethane foam, including methyloxirane and TDI (both of which have been formally identified as carcinogens by theState of California).  Polyurethane foam also breaks down into small particles over time, resulting in highly poisonous organotin compounds getting into the dust in your home. Research has found that polyurethane foam can also give off the gas toluene. The required flame retardants needed to address the fire risk associated with polyurethane foam are most often chemicals that are very toxic to humans.

Toxic in Production - the US EnvironmentalProtection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam production facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylenechloride, TDI and hydrogen cyanide. There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death). The State of North Carolina also forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure.

Energy intensive - as a man-made product of the oil industry, polyurethane foam takes a lot of energy to produce.

Hard to recycle - polyurethane foam is notoriously difficult to recycle because of its strong chemical bonds, which mean it can’t be melted. Instead, it’s often mechanically recycled by shredding into low-value fibres that can be used in carpeting. The actual cost and logistics of getting the foam back to factories is also quite high due to its bulk, making the actual cost of the recycled product high.

Major contributor to landfill - polyurethane foam is a major contributor to landfill, both in production and post-production. For example, 1-2% of total production goes straight to landfill due to being discoloured, the wrong size or having poor cell structure.

Non-biodegradable - unsurprisingly given those non-renewable constituent ingredients, foam is not biodegradable.

Our Position

As a start-up, we’re lucky – we can bed good practices into our business model right from the get go, including in particular with polyurethane foam, given that padding is absolutely integral to or cushions and furniture items.

In short, we hate polyurethane foam. As a non-renewable, highly flammable, difficult-to-recycle by-product of the petroleum industry that emits a cocktail of toxins during both its production and use, it’s awful.

At now, sit down, we will:

Do everything we possibly can to avoid using polyurethane foam (which won’t be easy due to its ubiquity in furniture)
If we do end up having to use polyurethane foam of any kind at all, explain the exact reasons why and set out a roadmap to stop using it as soon as possible