Synthetic foam mattresses are big business, especially because these petroleum products degrade fast and need replacing every few years. What about eco-friendly alternatives to foam mattresses, though? Are plant-based foams really better for the environment and your family’s health? Are there any genuinely green foam mattresses?
Table of Contents
In short, no, plant-based foam mattresses are decidedly not eco-friendly.
Beware companies advertising their foam mattresses as ‘green’ and ‘plant-based’. Bio-based foam made with soybeans might seem like a great innovation, but the truth is that these mattresses are still almost 100 percent polyurethane foam.
Yes, including some soy-based foam does reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with foam mattresses.
However, when you look at the actual math (not the numbers claimed in advertising), the reduction is very small.
Examples of typical marketing for ‘green foam’ mattresses
‘Eco Mattress A’
Claim: Made with 20 percent bio-based foam!
Reality: c10% is actually bio-based.
‘Eco Mattress B’
Claim: Contains a fraction of the petrochemicals used in other memory foams
Reality: That fraction is… 9/10!
‘Eco Mattress C’
Claim: Eco-friendly plant-based memory foam mattress
Reality: ‘Based’ on petroleum, with less than 10% plant-derived materials.
Why plant-foam is a con
If a mattress company claims its mattress is made with 20% soy-foam, you’d expect a fifth of the mattress foam to be made with soy oil, right? The truth is that these claims aren’t regulated and actually only apply to the polyol portion of the foam in a mattress.
As we discuss in our guide to toxic chemicals in mattresses, polyols and isocyanates are combined in almost equal amounts to make polyurethane foam. So, in a mattress with 20% soy-based foam, only 10% or so is actually bio-based. The other nine tenths are the same as regular polyfoam.
The way I look at it, saying something like a memory foam mattress is ‘plant-based’ is like saying a beef burger is ‘lettuce-based’. If you’re vegan, that’s not going to pass muster.
Similarly, if you’re looking for genuinely eco-friendly foam alternatives, a ‘plant-based’ petroleum polyfoam isn’t up to scratch.
Are soy-foams safe and non-toxic?
Call me a cynic, but I strongly suspect that manufacturers making memory foam with a dash of soy oil in place of some of the petroleum largely do so for the purposes of greenwashing. It sure sounds better to say a mattress is made with soy rather than solid gasoline.
Being more charitable, I will acknowledge that some newer polyfoams that contain soy also contain fewer toxic chemicals than conventional polyfoam. These may be certified to CertiPUR-US® standard, though this is a certification scheme created by the polyfoam industry. Claims often made for these foams include being:
- Low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- Made without formaldehyde, ozone depleters, prohibited phthalates, PBDEs, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals.
Let’s scrutinize that wording for a moment. Note that the foam is ‘low’ in VOCs; we want zero-VOCs. Note, too that the foam is made without ‘prohibited phthalates’, not all phthalates. As I’ve written about before at Leaf Score, phthalate regulation in the U.S. is an absolute quagmire, with far too much lobbying by the chemical industry.
The claims above also draw attention away from the fact that polyfoam is still made with fossil fuels that are polluting and toxic in themselves. And the processes required to make polyfoam include known carcinogens, respiratory irritants, endocrine disruptors, and other chemicals of concern.
In short, no, soy-foams are not safe or non-toxic, no matter how the manufacturers try to spin it.
Are bio-foams biodegradable?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that plant-based bio-foams would, well, biodegrade at end of life. Not so.
In fact, polyfoam made with soy oil might be a tad more durable than standard polyfoam and could take even longer to degrade at end of life. It’s also harder to recycle because it has a non-standard composition that could affect its performance in other applications, such as carpet backing.
The only biodegradable foam is latex foam, made with natural rubber tree sap.
Are soy bio-foams climate friendly?
How about the resource use question? Can soy-based bio-foams reduce energy input for a mattress? Again, the math isn’t as good as manufacturers want us to think. Soy-based polyols may use around 23 percent less energy to produce than traditional petroleum-based polyols, but if a product only uses 20 percent soy polyols, the energy saving amounts to less than 5 percent overall. It’s better than nothing, but it’s hardly something on which to base your whole marketing campaign.
Then there’s the consideration over the environmental toll of soy grown for anything other than human consumption. Most soy crops are grown to feed livestock and most (more than 90 percent) are genetically modified crops that increase farmers’ reliance on pesticides and herbicides.
Growing more soy to produce foam means that companies destroy even more of the Amazon rainforest. This has a huge negative impact on biodiversity and local communities, and itself contributes to climate change, but none of this is included in energy cost calculations.
It is a mistake, then, to assume that soy-based bio-foams are better for the environment than regular polyurethane. Instead, I would be wary of any company trying to use such claims to greenwash their products and overall company image. Polyurethane foam mattresses, whether they contain a modicum of soy or not, continue to negatively affect human health and the environment, and soy foam is not even readily biodegradable, so will end up in landfill with the rest of those toxic foam mattresses.
Final thoughts on eco-friendly alternatives to foam mattresses
Think of mattress makers selling ‘bio-foam’ as akin to Marlboro trying to sell you ‘safe’ cigarettes made with 10 percent organic tobacco. No thanks.
Fortunately, there are tons of excellent eco-friendly alternatives to foam mattresses. These include all-latex mattresses and latex hybrid mattresses, both of which offer superior thermoregulation, breathability, and edge support compared to memory foam. Or, if you prefer a firmer mattress overall, you might consider a cotton or wool futon.