SUSTAINABLE FLORISTRY – Starting with floral foam

It is time the flower industry considers the impact of this crumbling, synthetic plastic.

At some point in the last 50 years, one of the most beautiful forms of art has become corrupted. An exercise in celebrating natural beauty has been invaded at its very foundations by a giant, synthetic block of plastic.

How has this happened?

Well it made sense at the time. It took place during a period of history last century when inventions of convenience took centre stage. But only now, as we are starting to see the horrific consequences of our plastic use in the natural environment, in particular the marine environment, are such inventions being questioned.

It is not the fault of florists.

At some point the education system adopted foam as the material of choice for arranging. It made sense: it made the process of floral design much more accessible. It gave users confidence that the vision they wanted to achieve could be possible. In many ways, floral foam is an incredible invention, albeit a fluke.

The more widely available foam has become, the more people have adopted to using it as a base for arranging. These days, anyone can walk into a fabric or craft shop and buy a block for their use at home. But where are the instructions? The information about how to handle and dispose of the product? It starts as a solid but ends up in a liquid, crumbled into tiny fragments. How does the person at home receiving the arrangement know what to do with it and the foam filled water after the flowers have died? How do florists know what to do when industry-wide practice has always been to flush the used water down the sink?

People were arranging and enjoying flowers for a long time before the invention of foam.  Flowers have always symbolised life, beauty and fertility and reminded us of the transient nature of our existence.

We are all for celebrating flower arranging as an art-form and the sublime pleasure that is simply enjoying flowers for all their inherent attributes.  But a sustainable industry cannot have a non-biodegradable, bulky, synthetic plastic as a fundamental tool, especially when this product is used wet and in conjunction with the water system

There is no miracle replacement made from natural, sustainable materials as yet. In the meantime, the best option is to revisit the techniques of the old-days and look to designs that don’t require foam. It is a big job. Not only do florists need to change, but customers need to understand why they can’t have exactly what they are used to.

At its heart, any sustainable practice is one that can be supported over a long time without harm to the natural environment. It invests in methods and procedures that see the components used in the practice returned to the earth without negative consequence. It is about leaving the lightest footprint that we possibly can.

Floral foam: used once then left to break down over hundreds, if not thousands of years.



Floral foam is a type of plastic that is different to other families of plastics found in packaging and more familiar manufacturing.

The most closely related product is a type of house insulation foam, but other plastics in this family include bakelite and the very hard resin found in billiard balls. All these plastics belong to a group known as phenol-formaldehyde resins. These were the very first plastics to be developed in the early 1900s. 


Foam particles in the base of a vase filled with water

This may come as a surprise to florists who have always poured wastewater down the sink, because floral foam is used wet and in conjunction with the water system.

Because of its cellular foam structure, floral foam crumbles very easily into microscopic fragments. Water containing these fragments and discarded this way is undoubtedly adding to the problem of microplastic contamination in aquatic environments.

Wastewater poured down a street gutter becomes part of the stormwater system and will make its way to the nearest creek or river before heading out to sea. Poured down the sink and the particles enter the sewer via a building’s internal plumbing. Studies have shown that microplastics discarded into the sewerage system can bypass sewage treatment processes and be re-released into the sea as post-treatment wastewater or back to farmland when the recovered sludge is used as fertiliser.


A floral tribute sits on a foot path in Paris

Wherever it lands it will exist for an indefinite period of time. Eventually (over hundreds or thousands of years), it will break down under other influences such as light, friction, heat or interactions with other chemicals in the environment. The Enhanced Biodegradable Maxlife floral foam produced by Smithers Oasis is still a plastic foam.  According to the most recent press release for the product, the foam “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.

Floral foam fragments surround a sea anemone

As a United Nations report into biodegradable plastics in the marine environment suggests, these materials are not the solution to the marine plastic problem. Why? Because these products rarely meet they conditions they need to break down, especially in the marine environment. And what’s worse, people’s littering behaviours increase because they believe the material will just break down harmlessly. Until the product has broken down completely, it remains a plastic.

Copyright 2019 Sustainable Floristry Network