Soft as soy? Furniture utilizing soybeans for foam

KANSAS CITY, Mo. The hottest trend in furniture is hidden in the seat cushions. Soybean-based foam is cropping up in sofas and chairs, the Houston Chronicle reported. The new product reduces the amount of petroleum used in polyurethane foam, the core material in cushions. The innovation comes at a time of rising concern over petroleum prices and the availability of raw materials.
Norwalk Reflector Staff
Jul 25, 2010

KANSAS CITY, Mo. The hottest trend in furniture is hidden in the seat cushions.

Soybean-based foam is cropping up in sofas and chairs, the Houston Chronicle reported. The new product reduces the amount of petroleum used in polyurethane foam, the core material in cushions. The innovation comes at a time of rising concern over petroleum prices and the availability of raw materials.

Norwalk Furniture, a custom upholstery maker and retailer based in Norwalk, Ohio, recently made the switch to foam containing soy for its standard sofas and chairs.

"It's a major part of our green journey," said Reyna Moore, director of sales and marketing for Norwalk Furniture, which also uses recycled wire and steel for its machine-tied coil seating systems and natural fibers for its covers. "We know customers are becoming more environmentally aware."

Another large furniture manufacturer, Lee Industries of Newton, N.C., recently began using foam with soy in its natural Lee line, which also includes back and throw pillows made entirely of fibers from recycled bottles. Houston-area stores that carry Lee include Crate & Barrel, the Arrangement, Alyson Jon Interiors and Lauries Antiques in Tomball.

Other furniture makers such as Lane Home Furnishings also are beginning to use soy foam in their cushions. The new type of foam was born after Cargill, the agricultural products giant in Minnesota, and the Kansas Polymer Research Institute developed the product BiOH, a soybean oil.

Foam manufacturers such as Hickory Springs in Hickory, N.C., are now using BiOH. Hickory Springs' soy-based foam, Preserve, is used in Norwalk Furniture and Lee Industries' upholstered pieces. Flexible foam such as Preserve is made of two primary petroleum-based ingredients, polyol and toluene diisocyanate, that are mixed with water.

The first generation of Preserve foam uses 10 percent to 20 percent soy product, about 1 to 2 pounds of soy in a standard size sofa. Foam made with larger amounts of soy emitted an odor, according to Bobby Bush, Hickory Springs' vice president of foam and environmental technology.

"It smelled like burnt popcorn," Bush told the Chronicle. "Some people thought it smelled like burnt motor oil."

But research continues, and the company expects to soon introduce odorless second-generation Preserve products that have a higher soy percentage. They will include a high-resiliency foam and memory foam, which can be used for mattresses.

Preserve performs similarly to traditional polyurethane foam, Bush said, meaning it breaks down at roughly the same rate.

This means Preserve is not totally green, but it is more environmentally friendly because it is made partly from soybeans, a renewable resource.

At this point it's not cheaper to produce Preserve, Bush said. But as prices for petroleum continue to increase, the soy-based product is expected to be less expensive to make than traditional foam.