FLORAL FOAM

Floral foam is a single-use, synthetic plastic that does not biodegrade.

Due to its foam structure, it disintegrates very easily into very small pieces.

Because it is used wet and the wastewater is typically discarded into the sink or down the drain, it is undoubtedly contributing to the problem of microplastic contamination in the marine environment.

Despite the fact that it has been manufactured for over 60 years, very little is known about floral foam. No studies have been published about floral foam’s impact on the natural environment. Likewise, no studies have been performed to assess the health implications of humans working with floral foam.

#nofloralfoam is a global movement dedicated to raising awareness about floral foam and promoting alternative floristry techniques for the flower community.

The elimination of plastic foam from floral design is a critical step in establishing an environmentally sustainable floristry practice.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is floral foam?

Anybody who has worked in the flower industry will be familiar with the magical, green, water-absorbing blocks used to create flower arrangements.

First developed in the 1950s by Smithers-Oasis, by the 1970s the foam was widely considered to be an essential tool in modern floral design.

Floral foam is a remarkable product of great convenience. Not only does it hold up to 50 times its weight in water, it is able to support a flower or foliage stem in a desired position. It can be easily cut and shaped to fit into a container and it is cheap to purchase, especially when compared with the cost of fresh flowers.

These features of floral foam enabled floral design to move in extraordinary directions as the process of arranging became simpler and faster, as well as allowing for more complicated design. Before the invention of floral foam, florists did their arranging straight into vases or pots of water, using chicken wire or metal pins under the waterline to secure the stems in place.

What material is floral foam made from?

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. 

How does floral foam work?

Looking under a microscope, the structure of floral foam is very much like honeycomb with spaces between the connecting chambers that allow water to move through the material. Floral foam is also very similar to the cellular structure inside a plant’s stem.

A piece of foam under a microscope. Image Charlene Trestrail

A cross section of a Aristolochia stem. Image Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc.

Foam works by effectively becoming an extension of the flower’s stem. Before being cut, a plant receives water through the roots. However, when a stem is cut, water moves directly into the plant’s water vessels at the point where the cut has been made.  This water is “pulled” up the stem by the action of water evaporating from the surface of leaves and the stem. Without water, the flower cannot open properly and will wilt and die.

This movement of water into a flower’s stem happens when a freshly cut stem is placed in a vessel of clean water, without foam. When the stem is placed in foam, the movement of water happens first through the foam and then into the stem.

Fig. 1:  Cross section of a plant stem showing the bundles of water vessels (in red)

Fig. 2: Water movement (in red) through the foam and into the plant’s stem

The foam offers the added function of holding the stem in place. Although various claims are made about foam extending the life of flowers, one study concluded that cut roses last longer in a vase of water than in floral foam13.

Re-cutting a bunch of flowers and keep the water clean during the bunch’s vase life is a simple, chemical-free way to prolong flower life. This action helps the stem to continuously take up water by keeping the water vessels open and preventing the build-up of bacteria which causes the vessels to become blocked.

Is floral foam biodegradable?

Traditional phenol formaldehyde floral foam is not biodegradable.

Biodegradability is the ability of a product to decompose as the result of the action of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. These organisms use the product as an energy source and break it down into simple compounds.

Plastics are typically not biodegradable. However, eventually (over hundreds or many thousands of years) they will breakdown or ‘degrade’ under other influences such as light, friction, heat or interactions with other chemicals in the environment1. This process usually involves the material fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces first. Once they are smaller than 5 millimetres in size, they are commonly referred to as microplastics2.

1: Foam fragments in vase water          2: Dust-sized foam particles Image: John West

Degradation can only take place on at the surface of plastic material. As a complete block, floral foam has a very large surface area, because of its cellular structure. Crumbling foam into smaller pieces may speed up the degradation process, but there is a downside because the microplastics are more easily dispersed in the environment. When floral foam is broken up in water, it doesn’t “dissolve” into the water. It simply breaks into smaller and smaller particles that are eventually invisible to the eye.

Once microplastics are in the natural environment they can cause problems. If consumed, microplastics can cause physical blockages or irritation in small organisms. They can also attract and carry other chemicals and ‘deliver’ them to sensitive organisms3.

What is floral foam with ‘Enhanced Biodegradability'?

Manufacturers Smithers Oasis have released a line of foam described as having ‘enhanced biodegradability’. However,  according to the company, the product does not meet US Federal Trade Commission requirements to be certified ‘degradable’5.

Marketing information about the product states that: “the enhanced foam formulation is designed for modern landfills and attracts microbes that break the foam down into methane, CO2 and organic matter”. It also claims the product will biodegrade 100 percent within 567 days in biologically active landfill conditions5.

There is no further information on the website about the ‘organic matter’ that remains after biodegradation has taken place. However, a representative from Smithers-Oasis has explained that plastic microparticles do remain after degradation. The most recent press release for the product on the Smithers-Oasis website offers a different set of figures again: “The 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.” 4  

As this foam and its degradation end products are still plastic, then it may persist for a very long time if it lands in the natural environment or conditions different to the landfill conditions the foam was designed for. These laboratory test conditions used to determine biodegradability are based on optimised landfill conditions. They are conducted in an environment free from oxygen, maintained at a constant temperature of around 50 degrees Celsius and are inoculated with bacteria that thrive in an oxygen-free environment. Not all landfills meet these conditions.

The problem with biodegradable plastics in the natural environment is that they rarely encounter the conditions they need to breakdown. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report states, “biodegradable plastics in the marine environment will behave quite differently than in a terrestrial setting (soil, landfill, composter) as the conditions required for rapid biodegradation are unlikely to occur” 15.

Is floral foam toxic?

Floral foam is made from two chemicals considered to be hazardous to humans: phenol and formaldehyde.

These substances are mixed at low concentrations with non-hazardous substances to produce the final product. The final product is not considered to be particularly toxic to humans through infrequent exposure and careful handling because the toxic components are at such low concentrations.

The main concerns with using foam relate to inhaling the fumes or dust, or skin and eye irritation from directly handling the product. Foam stored in poorly ventilated cupboards or hot conditions may result in the release of residual formaldehyde gas.

According to a Material Safety Data Sheet for Oasis Floral Foam prepared on 31st July 20126, the following health risks are associated with handling floral foam:

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

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.

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 cause severe lung damage.

CHRONIC: Prolonged exposure may cause symptoms similar to acute affects. 

How should floral foam be handled?

A number of safety precautions should be taken when handling floral foam:

According to the Australian issued Oasis Floral Foam Material Safety Data Sheet dated 22nd October 20137 the following precautions are recommended for users:

*avoid eye or skin contact and inhalation of dust.

*Food, beverages and tobacco products should not be stored or consumed where this material is in use.

*Always wash hands before smoking, eating, drinking or using the toilet.

*Wash contaminated clothing and other protective equipment before storage or re-use.

*Provide eyewash fountains and safety showers in close proximity to points of potential exposure.

For more information about Safe Work Australia recommended practices for Exposure Control and Personal Protection for both phenol and formaldehyde see link .

How should users dispose of used floral foam?

Floral foam must be discarded with landfill bound rubbish. Water containing foam should never be poured down the sink or into storm water.

Unfortunately, there is very little information available for consumers to learn how and where to dispose of foam at the point of sale or on packaging. According to the Material Safety Data Sheets6 8, there is an expectation that users will contact their local environmental regulatory bodies to find out how to dispose of floral foam.

Phenol formaldehyde floral foam is not recyclable and it is not biodegradable.

While a percentage of the solid matter poured down the sink will be captured through sewage processing, the reclaimed solid material from sewage treatment plants is then used to fertilise farmland9, 11. This action re-releases the plastic particles back into the environment where they can once again make their way into rivers and streams. Those particles in sewage not captured with solids will be released into the ocean with the post-treatment wastewater10.

Pouring wastewater containing plastic foam fragments directly into stormwater (in gutters and drains by the side of the road) is the same as pouring it straight into the natural environment. Water here moves to the nearest river or creek and eventually makes its way to the ocean.

The best practice for disposing of floral foam water is to pour it through a tight weave fabric such as an old pillow case to capture as many of the foam fragments as possible. At this point in our understanding of microplastic and its impact on the natural world, best environmental practice would see this done into a hole in the ground or a garden, but never the water system12. However, it is important to remember that those plastic fragments will remain in that hole for an indefinite period of time.

So what's the problem?

MOST IMPORTANTLY floral foam is a petrochemical derived plastic product that is non-biodegradable. Wherever its final resting place may be, the plastic (regardless of the size of the article) may exist for hundreds or possibly many thousands of years.

Buried with a floral foam-based arrangement on top of the coffin? That block of foam will still be there long after the coffin and contents have decomposed.

Thrown into the rubbish? Foam will simply add bulk to the mountains of toxic landfill we are creating and leaving for generations to come.

Poured down the sink? Foam will continue to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Once in an aquatic environment, microplastics can enter the food chain at various points through ingestion by aquatic animals 3 .

Crumbled into the garden? Wherever tiny plastic fragments land they can be eaten by soil organisms. Like in the ocean, once microplastics enter the bottom of the food chain, they can be consumed by other animals, making their way into more and more living creatures.

There is almost no information available for consumers at the point of sale or with packaging to advise users on how to handle and dispose of the foam, or to explain what it is.

This lack of information from manufacturers has contributed to the common practice of discarding used water containing foam fragments into the water system, either down the drain on into stormwater. This has been happening since foam was first introduced.

The appearance of foam being green, crumbly and teamed with nature may contribute to the belief that foam is a natural product. As a consequence, this may lead users to incorrectly presume that foam can be discarded with green organic waste.  However, once foliage/flower waste is contaminated with foam, the plant material is no longer suitable for green waste composting and must be discarded with regular landfill rubbish.

The lack of information about the product and its widespread availability (hardwares, gift shops, fabric stores) has led to abuse of the product as a toy and the rise of a globally popular trend of crushing floral foam, often with glitter.

This horrific fad sees social media users crush foam with glitter (another microplastic) for the purposes of an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (tingling feelings on the scalp and back) and social media fame. As observed on many thousands of videos available online, that this is often done directly into the sink or into a container of water.

This mindless polluting can have potentially devastating consequences. The deliberate misuse of floral foam and glitter is a direct consequence of a lack of information at the point of sale/on packaging for consumers about what these products are and how they should be handled.

Basically very little is known about floral foam and how it behaves in the natural environment.

Despite the fact that it has been manufactured for nearly 70 years, very little is known about floral foam. No studies have been published about floral foam’s impact on the natural environment. Likewise, no studies have been performed to assess the health implications of humans working with floral foam.

Like so many plastics, we know nothing about foam’s ecotoxicity, aquatic toxicity, bio accumulative potential or its mobility in soil.

We are more familiar with images of larger examples of marine life such as whales and birds choking to death with stomachs full of plastic. But plastic is now finding its way into the food chain at the microscopic level via tiny particles of plastics in the marine environment. This issue is proving to be one of the biggest environmental disasters facing the world today as our environment and bodies become more and more contaminated with plastic.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

Invisible plastics https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics

Biodegradable plastic ‘false solution’ for ocean waste problem https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/23/biodegradable-plastic-false-solution-for-ocean-waste-problem

on marine environments. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi

Plastic Pollution Coalition  www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org

Plastic Oceans http://plasticoceans.uk/

Microplastics https://www.marineconservation.org.au/pages/microplastics.html

REFERENCES:

    1. Andrady A.L. (2015) Persistence of Plastic Litter in the Oceans. In: Bergmann M., Gutow L., Klages M. (eds) Marine Anthropogenic Litter. Springer, Cham  https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-16510-3_3
    2. Arthur, C., J. Baker and H. Bamford (eds). 2009. Proceedings of the International Research Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects and Fate of Microplastic Marine Debris. Sept 9-11, 2008. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS-OR&R-30.
    3.  Matthew Cole, Pennie Lindeque, Elaine Fileman, Claudia Halsband, Rhys Goodhead, Julian Moger, and Tamara S. Galloway (2013). Microplastic Ingestion by Zooplankton. Environmental Science & Technology 2013 47 (12), 6646-6655DOI: 10.1021/es400663f    https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/es400663f    
    4.  https://www.smithersoasis.com/2014/12/greening-the-floral-industry-with-oasis-floral-foam-maxlife/
    5.  https://oasisfloralproducts.com/ctemplate1.aspx?page=App_Themes/default/html/MaxLife_FAQs_en-US.html
    6. Material Safety Data Sheet for Oasis Floral Foam dated 07/31/12 and available via www.toxplanet.com
    7.  https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/898205_195723f870af4af5babdd47c476f79d2.pdf SECTION 7 via oasisfloral.com.au/material-safety-data-sheets
    8. https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/898205_195723f870af4af5babdd47c476f79d2.pdf SECTION 8 via www.oasisfloral.com.au/material-safety-data-sheets
    9. Ee-Ling Ng; Esperanza Huerta Lwanga; Simon M. Eldridge; Priscilla Johnston; Hang-Wei Hu; Violette Geissen; Deli Chen. An overview of microplastic and nanoplastic pollution in agroecosystems. Science of The Total Environment, ISSN: 0048-9697, Vol: 627, Page: 1377-1388. 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969718303838 
    10. Sherri A. Mason, Danielle Garneau, Rebecca Sutton, Yvonne Chu, Karyn Ehmann, Jason Barnes, Parker Fink, Daniel Papazissimos, Darrin L. Rogers, Microplastic pollution is widely detected in US municipal wastewater treatment plant effluent, Environmental Pollution, Volume 218, 2016,Pages 1045-1054, ISSN 0269-7491, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2016.08.056. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749116309629

11. Microplastics impacting wastewater treatment processes http://www.awa.asn.au/AWA_MBRR/Publications/Latest_News/Microplastics_impacting_wastewater_treatment_processes.aspx

12. Chelsea M. Rochman, Sara M. Kross, Jonathan B. Armstrong, Michael T. Bogan, Emily S. Darling, Stephanie J. Green, Ashley R. Smyth, and Diogo Veríssimo. Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads Environmental Science & Technology 2015 49 (18), 10759-10761 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b03909   https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.5b03909

13. Iftikhar. Ahmad, John M. Dole, Erin M. R. Clark & Frank A. Blazich (2014) Floral foam and/or conventional or organic preservatives affect the vase-life and quality of cut rose (Rosa × hybrida L.) stems, The Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology, 89:1, 41-46, DOI: 10.1080/14620316.2014.11513046

14. UNEP (2015) Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, concerns and impacts on marine environments. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi.  

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