As 250 million people across the globe pledge their support to Plastic Free July, it is a good time to look at the chair you are probably sitting on right now, and what happens to it when you get rid of it.
The Plastic Free Foundation, organisers of the Plastic Free July initiative, kicked off in Australia nearly a decade ago, focusing on changing our behaviour away from single use plastics. It is relatively easy to quantify single use – we take off the wrapper and put it in the bin; the waste is obvious. We can choose not to use disposable cups or plastic straws and we can complain about excess packaging on goods, however in our western culture we all need something to sit on – we can’t choose to reject furniture on the strength of what it is made from or what happens to it end of life – or can we?
Do we need to make a choice?
As millions of tonnes of furniture is sent to landfill every year it is time for us to consider not only its disposal, but to question the materials it was made from in the first place. The massive environmental impact our waste is bestowing on the planet is widely acknowledged, but I believe it is our insatiable appetite for yet more goods, in a price pushed, consumer led economy that is the source of the problem. The fashion industry has much to answer for; no longer are there four seasons for collections, but fifty-two. Garments are not even on hangers before they are binned, and this constant turnover in the search for new and latest has leeched to interiors. The concept that you replace your living room furniture every time you change the colour of the walls is not uncommon. With large homestyle emporiums selling brand new wing armchairs for less than £200 why would such a piece hold any value to us? It was designed to throw away.
When we buy a new sofa, we only see the top fabric, the gorgeous weave in the perfect accent to our room scheme at a price we can afford. It is the technology of plastics that has made this possible so when did our love affair with the plastic chair begin?
A century ago, stuffings for upholstered furniture was straw, hair, natural fibre of any kind that could be acquired. Throughout the twentieth century advances in production and material technologies, accelerated by the necessities of two world wars, went hand in hand with the design aesthetic of the modern age. Synthetic plastic from the petrochemical industry made anything possible, perfectly suited to moulding processes and mass production, and therefore cheap. Any colour, any size, any shape – what isn’t to love?
It is little wonder that designers such as Arne Jacobsen made such superb use of the material in his iconic egg chair of 1956; the pop art culture and psychedelia of the 1960s took the material and ran with it. As the 1960s gave way to the 70’s, fashions changed – out were the wooden arms and legs synonymous with mid-century styling and welcome in the era of the heavily padded three-piece suite made from synthetic fabrics covering layers of polyurethane foam over glued particleboard framing.
But there was a problem. What had been overlooked in this fashion for comfort was the deadly risk it held in the event of a fire. This was brought home in 1979 when the nation was rocked by fire which gutted Woolworth’s department store in Piccadilly Manchester. There were 9 fatalities, and this account from the Woolworths archive reads:
“In the corner, out of sight, polyurethane sofas had stood on their ends. The investigation concluded that their fabric had been set on fire, perhaps by a discarded cigarette. It had smouldered until the flames reached the foam filling. This was highly inflammable and had burnt at 700oC, releasing a deadly cyanide gas. A single breath had been enough to kill.”
The national appetite for cheap foam filled furniture was keen as ever, not put off by the potential hazards that this exposed. Bearing in mind it was an age where smoking in the home was commonplace legislation was badly needed and in 1988 the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations became law. The Act states that upholstered furniture made after 1950 can only be sold with a declaration that it conforms to certain standards and it is these regulations all upholsterers must adhere to today for both new and re-upholstered pieces.
The legislation hinges around effective flame retardancy (referred to as FR), ensuring foams and fillings and particularly synthetic fabrics are match resistant and resilient to cigarette burns. The materials are coated with compounds that interfere with the chemistry of burning. Commonly this is aluminium hydroxide which absorbs heat and gives off water vapour acting as a very efficient smoke suppressant. There is no doubt that these regulations have had significant positive impact on the safety of life, but the drop in direct deaths by inhalation of smoke from burning sofas probably more to do with the nation collectively kicking the habit of smoking.
And consider this; whilst aluminium hydroxide is considered safe there is a class of chemical retardants known as brominated flame retardants which have attracted increased scrutiny over the last decade. These polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) form only a small proportion of retardant coatings in the market but nevertheless are known to be toxic to humans and the environment, and because they are bio-accumulative they go on presenting a risk. Banning the chemical on new furniture, as some countries now have – will not make the problem go away. Given the present global volume of landfill waste, these chemicals, persistent in the environment have been detected in air, dust, soil, water, food and wildlife.
Polyurethanes, polyesters, nylons, acrylics are all derived from fossil fuels which are an undisputed contributor to greenhouse gasses and climate change. Leaving aside the environmental debate around fossil fuels and the production of the material in the first instance, it is the degradation of the fillings that cause concern. Take apart an old foam filled chair and the filling will be turning to dust. This dust remains problematic in the environment, made up of tiny microscopic plastic particles that won’t degrade, finding their way into the oceans and becoming the unseen danger to the life within subsequently returning back to us within the food-chain.
If this is the case, why are we still making furniture like this, and in such volume? The answer is simple – it’s cheap. The time has come to change the way we do things. We need to value what we already have and to question out insatiable consumerism. I must add at this point that it is not just plastics that are the bad guys – the demand for cotton and other natural commodities have had equally destructive effect on our planet. Its not so much what it is, it’s the quantities of how much of it we use.
So, what as individuals can we do?
Firstly, buy once, buy well. In an age where fast fashion interiors are hot on the heels of clothing fashion, choose a piece that can be adapted over the years, accent cushions, colours that can go with any palate, timeless classics.
Secondly, when you do buy new furniture, never be tempted to take the fire safety label off – this sentences the piece to landfill as an item without label cannot be sold on or even given away to charity.
Thirdly, consider giving an existing chair a new life. The professional upholsterer is able to work with what would be deemed the most hopeless of cases, (severe woodworm excepted). Find a chair you like and make it your own. Re-upholstery will serve you well for decades to come.
When you do re-upholster, or buy new, please consider some other alternative natural materials. Wool, coconut fibre, linens and cottons, responsibly sourced provide a choice and a better future which I will be exploring in a future blog.