Why I’m proud to be Foam-Free
Ever since the beginning of my business, I have avoided using floral foam. I came to floral design via a life-long career in the garden. I’m a hiker and a camper and a lover of the earth. I care deeply about nature and the health of our planet. As a gardener, I insist on organic and low-water use practices. At home, I buy organic & non GMO food as much as possible. I recycle and compost and look for ways to avoid being “part of the problem”. When I started my floral design business, all those values came along. Being foam-free is just one part of our overall commitment to sustainable floristry .
First, and foremost for me, floral foam is a single use plastic. The world is plagued by plastics. Plastic = toxic garbage. The manufacturing of plastic poisons our air and water. The oceans and their inhabitants are choking on all our plastic discards. Microplastics have been found in human flesh and the flesh of marine mammals. Why the heck would I want to add to this problem? The more I learn about foam and how to work without it, the more I am convinced that my decision to be foam-free is the right one.
Foam-free floristry in action: that 3 gallon bucket of trash was the only “waste” left from the massive and beautiful foam-free floral installation made with locally grown flowers, created at the Whidbey Flower Workshop in 2018. Those bags then got separated and recycled so that they only true waste was the zip ties and some broken plastic tubes.
The top 6 reasons I work foam-free:
Floral foam is made from carcinogens
Floral foam is made from carcinogenic chemicals including formaldehyde, phenol, heptane, barmium sulfate, and carbon black. Proponents of floral foam may say that it becomes “environmentally neutral” once it is manufactured. While that may be true, the production of foam gives those icky chemicals a reason to exist. If we decrease the usage of floral foam, we could decrease the presence of carcinogenic chemicals in our world. Wouldn’t that be a positive net effect on the planet? And on the workers who have to handle those nasties to make foam?
Floral Foam is garbage. It is a thermoset plastic and never biodegrades.
I’ve seen mountains of foam heading to the landfill after large events. We don’t need to feed our landfills, esp when there are other low-waste alternatives out there. Proponents of foam will tell you it “breaks down”. Consider the difference between breaking down and actually biodegrading. “Breaking down” means to get smaller and smaller. Biodegrading is the process of being converted, typically through digestive action of microbes or other organisms, into more basic chemical components. Biodegrading is an actual change of chemistry; “breaking down” or degradation is just getting littler. The latter is what foam does; it does not biodegrade, rather becomes a microplastic. Smithers Oasis, the maker of Oasis Floral Foam, says as much on their website:
“A brick of floral foam can be reduced to sand-like granules and is environmentally neutral (no harmful effects.) This degradation (and potential biodegradation) occurs over an unknown period of time — more than 100 years.”
Degradation is not biodegradation. Re: “potential biodegradation” – oh, evil marketing jargon! In what sort of environment might that potential biodegradation occur?! And even in that environment, 100 years is NOT SOON ENOUGH!! Last, I take issue with their “no harmful effects” statement, see point 3 below.
Some proponents of floral foam will claim it is compostable. It is NOT; Smithers Oasis says so themselves:
“Floral Foam has not been tested for compostability and therefore no claims regarding compostability can be made at this time. We are working towards further formulations that allow for industrial composting.”
I commend Smithers Oasis for working toward that! I would encourage them to come up with a formulation that is compostable in anyone’s back yard, not just in industrial composting facilities (that may not exist in every town across the globe!). But my guess is that they will have to totally rethink the product – or ditch it, and formulate something better and different – not made from such nasty chemicals – to achieve that goal.
To make the matters more confused, Oasis has released a new type of foam on the market that they tout as being biodegradable, called “Oasis Enhanced Bio Maxlife Floral Foam”. HOWEVER, their own press release on their own website states “This product has been shown by ASTM D5511 to biodegrade 25% within 18 months in biologically active landfill conditions. Appropriate facilities may not exist in your area. The rate and extent shown do not mean that the product will continue to decompose.” But in the product description they state it is 100% biodegradable in 547 days. ?? Confusing.
Overall, my take is while it might be somewhat biodegradable in specialized conditions, are those conditions globally available (like the foam is)? Do I have a biologically active landfill in my town? (I don’t). This type of landfill is uncommon. In all the areas that do not have “appropriate facilities” this new foam is just like the old foam – plastic garbage. Not really a win, in my playbook.
3. Floral Foam is contributing to the microplastics problem.
Surely you have heard about the horrible problems that microplastics are creating in aquatic environments. Animals large and tiny are choking on plastics and our marine ecology is severely and sadly compromised. Floral foam contributes to this problem. It is sold dry (and very dusty) but then is soaked before use. That soaking water is full of tiny and chunky bits of plastic/foam. Most florists dump that soaking water down the drain. Drains lead into waterways. Even drains that lead to sewage treatment plants: the by-products of the sewage treatment are put back into the environment as composts, fertilizers or water. All those tiny particles of Oasis plastic join the waste stream, blow around, and run into streams and oceans, and start to poison and choke marine life…
Prolongued/repeated exposure to floral foam IS harmful to florists/people
The most imminent danger to humans from floral foam is the inhalation of the dust form of it, and skin exposure. Any dust at all can be irritating to lungs or skin, but consider that it is made from formaldehyde, heptane, and carbon black. At the bottom of this article, I include an excerpt from the 2009 North America formulation MSDS (Materials Safety Data Sheet) for Oasis Floral Foam. There are a lot more hazardous chemicals out there in the world, but still – whenever I can avoid something “bad” and find an alternative, I will.
It doesn’t even work
A plant stem is sort of just a bundle of straws. Plants take up moisture through those straws. When a stem is jammed into floral foam, all those little “straws” (the vascular tissue, aka xylem and phloem) get clogged with foam. In theory, the foam is porous enough that the plants pull water through the foam. But I’m not convinced this is what happens. In general there is a staggering lack of actual scientific research about floral foam, though there is one study that was done and that found flowers in foam to have a shortened vase life over roses in plain water. That matches my intuition and experience. So I like to just put my flowers directly into water and let them drink freely.
There is more than one way to skin a cat
The main role of floral foam is to hold flowers in place, and to provide hydration. Plastic has only been around for less than a century. Humans have been in arranged relationships with flowers for much longer than that! There are other ways to arrange flowers, to hold them in place and to provide hydration. I’ll choose those methods instead and forego carcinogens, microplastics & so much garbage.
There is an ever-growing #nofloralfoam movement and I am proud to be a part of it!
What is your take on the floral foam topic? Is environmental health important to you? Leave a comment below (after the MSDS excerpt). Do you use foam in your practice? If you are interested in learning more about how to arrange flowers without floral foam, come to one of my workshops! Sign up for my mailing list to stay informed.
In case you are curious, here’s a link to the Materials Safety Data Sheet (north america 2009 version), and the excerpt of the section describing the hazards to humans.
PRIMARY ROUTE(s) OF EXPOSURE: Contact and Inhalation of dust.
IRRITATION DATA: May cause irritation to skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.
ACUTE: Dust or fumes may cause irritation to the nasal passages, lacrimation, olfactory changes, and pulmonary changes. Inhalation of heptane fumes may irritate the respiratory tract producing light headedness, dizziness, muscle incoordination, CNS depression and narcosis.
CHRONIC: Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde and/or carbon black may cause cancer.
ACUTE: May cause irritation.
CHRONIC: May cause dermatitis. Frequent or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde can cause hypersensitivity leading to contact dermatitis.
EYE CONTACT: ACUTE: Contact may be irritating.
CHRONIC: May cause conjunctivitis.
ACUTE: May cause mouth irritation due to local pH effect. Swallowing formaldehyde may cause violent vomiting and diarrhea. Aspiration of heptane into lungs can produce severe lung damage.
CHRONIC: Prolonged exposure may cause symptoms similar to acute effects.