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Greenwashing or genius: Is soybean foam and other plant based memory foams really better for the environment?
Greenwashing or Genius: Why a Soy Crib Mattress Might Not be a Great Option
For green active families on a budget, we understand the allure of buying a foam crib mattress for your little one. Way cheaper than innerspring, coconut coir and natural latex crib mattresses, it’s hard to resist your wallet’s pull.
However, as consumers become more aware of some of the issues with some flexible polyurethane foam, including fire retardant chemicals and VOC off-gassing, some manufacturers are turning to soybean foam and other plant based memory foam to meet changing consumer tastes.
If you’re considering buying a plant foam crib mattress, you may be wondering if a soy crib mattress is really any better for your baby or the planet? Keep reading to learn everything you never knew you wanted to know about soybean crib mattress, plant based memory foam, and more!
Polyurethane Foam Crib Mattresses vs. Soybean Crib Mattresses: Are They Really That Different?
In the past, buying a crib mattress meant you were most likely buying a product with polyurethane foam somewhere inside.
These days, that’s no longer the case.
True, most foam crib mattresses are made from polyurethane foam, a semi-rigid yet flexible material which is both supportive and cushioning.
However, there are also plenty of natural, healthy and environmentally friendly alternatives.
A plant based foam mattress is one alternative to polyurethane. It refers to foam where some or all of the polyol content comes from plant sources instead of petrochemicals.
How is Soybean Foam Different from “Normal” Foam?
Flexible Polyurethane Foam
Polyurethane is made from an isocyanate, a polyol and water.
There are environmental concerns with polyurethane foam, because both the isocyanate and polyol are petrochemicals. In other words, they’re derived from a non-renewable resource.
In addition to the environmental issues, there are health concerns with polyurethane, too. Some of the chemicals that may be used in manufacturing are carcinogens, and polyurethane foams release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your home. Add to that, additional chemicals may be added during manufacturing.
While organizations such as the Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam have tried to raise the bar through their CertiPUR-US® foam certification program, even certified foam doesn’t eliminate all of the concerns with polyurethane foam.
Soy Foam and Other Plant Based Foam
Because of the concerns with flexible polyurethane foam, some manufacturers and consumers are turning to plant foam.
With plant-based foam, manufacturers use polyols made from plant extracts instead of petroleum.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch: manufacturers may use all plant-derived polyols, or they may use a combination of plant-derived and petroleum-derived polyols. And plant-based foams still use petroleum-derived isocyanates.
Soy Foam, Canola Foam, Palm Foam and More: The Different Plants That Make up Plant-Based Foam
Manufacturers most commonly use soy to make plant-based foam. Because of this, you’re most likely to come across plant foams labelled as soy foam or soybean foam.
However, manufacturers also use castor beans, canola (rapeseed), palm coconut, and peanuts!
Castor oil actually contains polyols, and requires minimal processing. With other plant oils, manufacturers process the oils to create polyols.
Are Plant Based Foam Mattresses 100% Plant?
No. While polyols can be 100% plant derived, isocyanates can’t be. That means that even in a plant based memory foam mattress, the isocyanates come from petroleum.
Because of this, the term plant-based foam is somewhat misleading. For example, if 20% of a petrochemical polyol is replaced by a plant polyol, only about 10% of the foam actually comes from plant materials.
Since the percentage of plant-based materials varies among manufacturers, it is a good idea to ask for the exact percentage included in their foams. Just be forewarned: just because you ask, doesn’t mean you’ll get a straight answer.
At the end of the day, soybean foam and its ilk are still a version of flexible polyurethane foam.
Is a Plant or Soy Crib Mattress Better for Your Baby and the Planet?
Which is Better for the Environment?
Plant-based memory foam is possibly better for the environment. However, it’s difficult to know for sure. Even if it is better, it’s probably not by much.
As explained above, plant-based foams use materials obtained from plants to replace polyols derived from petroleum.
In the “pros” column, this means reduced petroleum consumption. Manufacturers need less petroleum to produce the polyols, and less energy (from petroleum) to transform petroleum molecules to polyols. Creating polyols from plant oils requires less energy than creating polyols from petroleum, adding another environmental benefit.
In the “cons” column, there are some serious ecological concerns related to soy cultivation, most notably deforestation of the Amazon.
And, at the end of the day, these foams still use petrochemicals. They simply use less of them.
Which is Better for Human Health?
Plant-based foams are almost definitely better for human health, but they may not be healthy, per se.
Many petroleum-based foams emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Some VOCs are linked to human health problems, including cancer.
The inclusion of polyols from plant oils reduces the emission of VOCs. However, consumers should shop for plant-based foams that are independently certified for low VOCs emissions and free from other toxic chemicals.
A Final Word of Warning
If you decide to give a plant foam mattress a try, be sure to check out the other components that make the mattress. Manufacturers may still use things like vinyl/PVC as a waterproofing solution, which means the mattress could expose your baby to phthalates and other chemicals.