The Problems with Floral Foam

Why I Choose to be Foam-Free

From the beginning of my business, I have avoided using floral foam.

This practice is simply an extension of the overarching set of values that apply to my whole life.  I’m a hiker and a gardener and a lover of the earth.  I care deeply about nature and the health of our planet.  In the garden, 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 choose glass over plastic.  I look for ways to avoid being “part of the problem.”

When I started my floral design business, all those values naturally came along.  Being foam-free is just one part of my overall commitment to sustainable floristry.

For me, the biggest problem with floral foam is that it is a single use plastic.  Our planet is drowning in plastic.  The manufacturing of it poisons our air and water.  The oceans and their inhabitants are choking on our plastic trash.  Microplastics have been found in the flesh of marine life (including the seafood we eat), and now in humans  (we have contaminated our own food system!).  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 for me.

I want to create a floral design world where if someone is using foam, they are working with something that is not plastic, that is certified compostable, and that is harmless to both the florist, the consumer and the environment.

I am not here to point fingers.  While I choose to avoid floral foam, I respect that other designers may find it is important to their work.  It is not my goal to demonize Oasis, the maker of floral foams.  Simply, I want to create a floral design world where if someone IS using foam, they are working with something that is not plastic, that is certified compostable, and that is harmless to both the florist, the consumer and the environment.   That is why I have launched a campaign asking for Oasis to quickly bring a better floral foam to market.


 

Foam-free floral installation at the Whidbey Flower Workshop by Tobey Nelson Events

 

Tobey Nelson Events practices Sustainable Floristry which means low-waste and foam-free techniques

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.  The only true waste was the zip ties and some broken plastic tubes.


The Problems with Floral Foam

Here is a quick snapshot of the no floral foam argument:

In all of its current formulations, it is a single use plastic.

It is a phenolic foam made from formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.  It poses a health hazard to florists if not properly handled (and I’ve never witnessed proper handling!).

It does not compost.  It simply breaks apart and becomes a microplastic.  Plastic floral foam is contributing to our toxic legacy of plastics and microplastics polluting the earth. (NOAA, Hardesty 2015, GESAMP 2016)

It isn’t needed nearly as often as it is used.  If more florists became more selective about if and when they used it, we would see a change for the better.

It is taking up precious space in landfills.  We are running out of landfill space on the planet and we should not feel good about sending more products there.

It may not even be effective (Ahmad, 2015).

Let’s Dig Deeper

Before we jump in to really dissecting this issue/product, let’s review some important terms & key concepts:

Some floral foam claims to be biodegradable.  This sounds like a natural thing – it must okay, right?  No!  Biodegradable is NOT a synonym for Compostable.  This is a key concept.

What is the difference between “Biodegradable” and “Compostable”?
The difference has to do with the amount of time it takes for the product to break down, and what sort of substances that process leaves behind.

Anything that can compost is biodegradable, but not everything biodegradable is compostable.

Compostable means that a product is capable of disintegrating into natural elements in a compost environment (aerobic), leaving no toxicity in the soil. This typically must occur in about 90 days.

Biodegradable means that a product can be broken down without oxygen and that it turns into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass.  “Biodegradable” products can vary greatly in how long they take to break down.  Nearly everything will eventually degrade, even plastic.  But some plastics can take a thousand years and may leave behind harmful substances or particulates in the process.  Something that is “biodegradable” can still leave behind toxic stuff, whereas something that is “compostable” must necessarily break down into non-toxic stuff.

Maybe this quote from Ecology Center will help:  “Biodegradable plastics are made from the same materials as conventional petroleum based plastics, but with even more chemicals. These extra chemicals cause the plastic to break down more rapidly when exposed to air and light. Some biodegradable plastics fragment rather than biodegrade, due to the addition of oxidizing agents (found in “oxo-degradable plastics”). By fragmenting, rather than degrading, they break into small pieces which can pollute soils, increase risk of ingestion for animals and end up in our oceans and waterways. These kind of plastics are impossible to recover for recycling and aren’t suitable for composting. The prefix “bio” can be very misleading: plastics do degrade, but not into something biological. It breaks into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic.”

Terminology Influences Regulations
Not only are “compostable” and “biodegradable” not synonyms, but this specific verbiage influences how a product is regulated.  There is no governing or certifying entity that measures or enforces biodegradability.  Whereas there are several entities that measure & enforce compostability.  Think of it in terms of “organically grown” vs. “naturally grown.”  There is a certifying body that will inspect a claim of organic, but there is nothing to check the accountability of “naturally grown.”

The Nitty-gritty of the No Floral Foam Argument

1.  Floral foam is made from carcinogens

According to the MSDS sheet, floral foam is made from formaldehyde and phenol.  I’ve also seen information stating it is made from heptane, barmium sulfate, and carbon black.  Some of these are known carcinogens &/or mutagens.  The production of foam gives those icky chemicals a reason to exist.  If we decrease our 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?

2.  It is harmful to florists

While I have not worked extensively in shops or studios where foam is used, whenever I have encountered foam use, I’ve never been asked or advised to wear gloves or a respirator, or to wear protective clothing.  But after reviewing the MSDS, I wish I had!  (Excerpt from Oasis Foam MSDS):

INHALATION

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.

SKIN CONTACT
In case of skin contact, immediately remove contaminated clothing and wash affected areas with water and soap. Seek medical attention if symptoms occur.

Acute
May cause irritation.

Chronic
May cause dermatitis. Frequent or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde can cause hypersensitivity leading to contact dermatitis.

INGESTION

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.

3.  Floral Foam does not compost

From the FAQ page about Maxlife Floral Foam with Enhanced Biodegradability:

“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.” 

Referring back to the “biodegradable vs. compostable” terminology breakdown at the beginning of the post, we can infer that this means product does not break down into non-toxic components.

Side note:  I am thrilled to hear that S-O is working toward a compostable formulation.  I hope that comes to market soon. I would love to see them totally rethink the product and formulate something made from non-toxic, renewable resources to achieve that goal.

4.  Claims about biodegradability are confusing

Oasis has released a new type of foam called “Oasis Floral Foam Maxlife with Enhanced Biodegradability”.  The claim with this product is “This product has been shown by ASTM D5511 to biodegrade 25% within 18 months in biologically active landfill conditions”.  There used to be a press release (now it goes to a dead link; I’ve asked Oasis to resend, but no response to date) that included two very telling sentences at the end of the claim, that you don’t read anywhere else:  “Appropriate facilities may not exist in your area. The rate and extent shown do not mean that the product will continue to decompose.”  

I have been trying to suss out what a biologically active landfill is, and where they are located.  This information is not readily accessed.  It seems that while many landfills may be biologically active, this may not be a type of landfill specifically, which means (to me) that it is hard to know if most municipal landfills qualify, or if they are globally available (like the foam is)?  If a landfill is not biologically active and that is where the foam is disposed of, does that mean it does not biodegrade or that it takes 100 years or more to do so?

Bottomline, it is hard to qualify if that claim is worth much or not. Therefore, it is hard to measure if the new formulation is really a win.

5.  Biodegradable or not, it is a single use plastic taking up space in a landfill

YUCK!  I don’t want to contribute to landfills!  In many parts of the globe, we are running out of landfill space.  If we had a 100% certified compostable alternative, we would not have an issue here.  I’ve seen mountains of foam heading to the landfill after large events.  We don’t need to feed our landfills.  Until that compostable alternative is made, let’s use zero-waste and low-waste alternatives such as chicken wire, water tubes, ecofresh wraps and other techniques.

What gives Maxlife Floral Foam its “enhanced biodegradability” and what does that mean anyway?

Since the exact formulation is a proprietary secret, it is hard to say with 100% certainty what is going on here.  But since it is a phenolic plastic, this means that it starts, and ends, with nasties.  After lots of random research and information hunting about biodegradable plastics, I infer that “enhanced biodegradability” means they tinkered around with chemistry and stuck a carbohydrate into the molecular structure.  Enzymes in (‘biologically active”) landfills eat the carb, leaving behind – more plastic!  This enables the inclusion of the friendly-sounding “biodegradable” phrase, but as we see above, this does not mean it is not toxic.  While it may be biodegradable, we are still left with microplastics, no better than before.  Call me cynical, but I smell a bit of a greenwashing campaign here.

6.  Floral Foam is contributing to the microplastics problem

Surely you have heard about the horrible problems that microplastics are creating in aquatic environments (Teuten 2009, Haab 2016, Nat’l Geo).  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 …

7. Do we even need it?

As a water source, the jury is out as to whether or not it is as effective as people think.  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 found that flowers in foam 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.

Plastic has only been around for less than a century.  Humans have been in arranged relationships with flowers for much longer than that!

The other role of floral foam is as a mechanic, to hold flowers in place.  But 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.

What is your take on floral foam?

Leave a comment below. 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.

4 thoughts on “The Problems with Floral Foam

    1. Thanks, Susan! I’m so glad you found this info helpful! Chemicals and garbage – We can all work together to have just a bit less of them on the planet!

  1. Loved this !! But how do you do large structures with out ? Other pieces I can definitely make the change but why about those pieces where you need “something in the corner “ ?
    Thank you !!

    1. Thanks Tina! It is so great to know there is someone out there reading this! There are many options for large structures – and that is the main thing I teach at my annual Whidbey Flower Workshop. I either tube the flowers, bunch them in Eco-Fresh Wraps, tuck a hidden vase/bucket in, or use flowers that are proven to last out of water – for a list of those, search for the Passionflower Sue list of Reliables. Perhaps you will want to join us on Whidbey to learn all the tricks – we cover loads of techniques! April 26 – 28, 2020 – you can sign up for my mailing list to be in the loop on the details. Thanks for reading and keep up the foam-free work – the earth thanks you for one less plastic brick!

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