“What material can be used as a chair seat?” is an increasingly common question from furniture manufacturers seeking to make products that are better for the environment and for human health.

Standard polyurethane foam is one of the most popular choices to use as padding material, but it comes with a string of environmental and health concerns, effectively ruling it out for a lot of products. While there are alternatives, how can manufacturers know which is the most cost-effective, fit for purpose, and best for their environmentally-savvy customers?

The main problem with polyurethane foam stems from substances involved in the manufacturing process. Polyurethane is produced when two components – isocyanates and polyols – react with each other.

Isocyanates are hazardous chemicals which can be highly irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract, and are potentially carcinogenic to humans. Aside from the hazards they can pose to workers who manufacture the foam, these isocyanates can linger on in the final product and represent a health concern. Isocyanates themselves are produced by treating amines, a class of organic compounds, with phosgene, a highly toxic gas which was used as a chemical weapon during World War I.

Conventional polyols, meanwhile, are derived from petrochemicals, representing a risk to environmental sustainability in the long term.

There are other substances that also make polyurethane foam a less-than-ideal choice. 1,3-butadiene is present in some latex, rubber and foam materials despite being classified as a probable human carcinogen by The International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is also suspected of potentially causing harm to developing unborn children.

Brominated flame retardants are also widely used in a wide range of products, including furniture. Two forms of brominated flame retardants, known as octaBDE and pentaBDE, have been linked to liver and thyroid problems, as well as changes in neurobehavioural development, in animal studies. Commercial penta and octaBDE contain components which are known to bioaccumulate and these have been detected in breast milk in Australia. Thankfully, these substances are being phased out of production.

Polyurethane foam's primary danger lies in its' manufacturing process

Polyurethane foam’s primary danger lies in its manufacturing process

So what are the alternatives?

There are several products on the market which aim to address at least one of each of the previously mentioned concerns. For example, foam created using natural and renewable soy-based polyols addresses the sustainability concerns behind using traditional petrochemical-based polyols. However, the resulting foams still often make use of hazardous isocyanates during production.

Following this, production of “green polyurethane,” or polyurethane production without the use of isocyanates, is another positive development in this regard. This obviously cuts down on the amount of potentially hazardous material used during manufacture or use, but may not necessarily be the most cost-effective option for many manufacturers.

Another solution is to use recycled rubber or latex, or even natural latex, in place of polyurethane foam. Using recycled materials is more cost-effective and has a lower impact on the environment compared to sourcing new polyurethane foam material. Unfortunately this still doesn’t address some of the concerns regarding the chemical composition of the rubber used.

While there isn’t a clear-cut solution yet for foam that’s environmentally-preferable, better for human health, and cost-effective all at once, clearly the industry is moving in the right direction. For now, it’s a matter of each manufacturer making a decision based on their highest priority. However, it’s encouraging to know that there are alternatives out there, and that the industry is developing potentially better options all the time.