Our homes are filled with furniture but did you know that most upholstery fabrics contain fire retardants which are hazardous not only to our health but the health of our planet. There are no end-of-life recycling practices yet to keep it from landfills, so what are we to do?

AWARENESS: The More You Know!

Back in the 1970s, California set regulations to ostensibly protect public health by establishing strict fire- resistance standards for most home and office furnishings. Due to the oversized nature of the California furniture market coupled with the consolidation of the national furniture industry, this regulation became a de facto standard across North America.

Despite knowing the risks of these chemicals, their manufacturers used a combination of deceit, obfuscation and the manipulation of science and public opinion, to sustain the California standard that all but mandated the use of BFRs (brominated fire retardants) in upholstered furniture for the North American market. As a result, these chemical corporations have created a massive source of persistent, bio-accumulative toxic chemicals that will be pervasive in the environment and our bodies for generations to come. Luckily for all of us, California did change its standard in 2013. So now standards have changed, but there is still a massive amount of furniture out there that will be discarded for the next half century. As has already been shown, the chemicals in these materials are not good for us, and we do not want them put back into use through reuse and recycling programs. That’s why furniture poses a particular concern to waste advocates whose mantra is reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reusing and recycling the toxic materials in the unwanted couches and upholstered chairs poses a hazard to human health, so what should we do?

A starting point would be to have furniture companies finance and manage the infrastructure for collecting unwanted furniture from our homes, either on their own or in partnership with retailers and/or municipal governments.

Discarded furniture would be segregated into two categories: that which contains chemical flame retardants and that which does not. The chemical free material can be further broken down by material processors into component parts which can get sold back into the manufacturing process as recycled commodities (e.g. steel in springs, rigid plastics, textiles, and wood). The chemically-treated foam needs to be handled properly to destroy the harmful chemicals. Any process by which those chemicals might be reintroduced into the market must be avoided, as consumers would likely be unaware of the inclusion of recycled material in future products – e.g. carpet padding – that continues to pose a health threat to people. A system for recycling furniture is needed world wide. Furniture manufacturers need to play in role in the collecting and processing of the products they are putting on the market. Additionally, the chemical industry needs to share in that responsibility because there is, if nothing else, a moral debt they have to pay to all of us for profiting off the exposure of hundreds of millions of people to toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems, and impaired fertility.

However, even if we accomplish all of that, we are left with a final problem, which flows from a successful program: What do we do with all of the chemically treated, hazardous material once it has been collected? At the moment there is no good solution. Recycling programs for furniture foam and fabrics are non-existent, so we need to do what we can as consumers to make smarter decisions when it comes to the furniture in our lives to keep what we have longer and repair, reupholster or donate to keep it out of landfill.