Abandon Floral Foam. NOW!

Few purchases seem as innocent as that of flowers – buying a bunch of beautiful blooms as a gift to communicate one’s love, celebrate a milestone or apologise for a misdeed – is a tradition that dates back centuries and sees no signs of slowing down. Today, in an age of information about ethical consumerism and growing awareness of the stories behind what we purchase, (whether that’s the rather nasty impact of buying fast fashion; the enduring and non-recyclable nature of that takeaway coffee cup; or the unfortunate life of the factory farmed animal which ended up on our dinner plate), nothing can (and should) avoid scrutiny. And so, under the microscope are flowers, and for very good reason.

Image of Cecilia Fox installation at 'Flowering Now' by Blossom Daisy Creative

A growing movement, popularised by the instagram account @nofloralfoam, is aiming to open consumers’ and flower lovers’ eyes to the likelihood that the bunch of flowers they have just bought at the supermarket, petrol station or florist is standing in a block of floral foam, which is potentially carcinogenic (made up of materials including carbon black and formaldehyde) and cannot break down in landfill, like any piece of plastic. Having been around since the 1950s, this usually green-coloured foam has long been viewed as an essential tool in the flower industry; its main use being a hydration aid for flowers and a ‘miracle’ substance that enables stems to stand in place securely. Like any piece of single-use plastic, its life as a useful floristry apparatus is minute compared with its potentially infinite lifespan in landfill and dangerous effects if it reaches the waterways.

The likely negative environmental impact of floral foam in many respects overshadows the beauty of a bunch of flowers, no matter how pure the intention behind giving those flowers may be.”

This is certainly the view of Rita Feldmann, contributing member of the social media collective @nofloralfoam and florist at Rita Feldmann Flowers in the Dandenong Ranges. Rita has been working with flowers “since the day she was born”, helping her parents in their successful family business selling flowers in Melbourne’s South Yarra, before embarking on a science education, career as a writer, and now having come full circle, back to floristry.

Even as early as the ‘90s, Rita’s family had mostly phased out using floral foam in their Prahran store because “the association was that it was not good…when you cut it, there’s a vibe about it.” Rita’s unique background in science and floristry makes her the perfect candidate to take a closer look into the impact of floral foam, an instinct that arose after seeing the green stuff mistaken as biodegradable: “I really went ‘shit we’ve got a problem’ when I saw somebody had put a large amount of it into a compost bin. It was then I thought, ‘what’s going on here?’ Because that is the last thing I’d put in my compost bin. This product is plastic. But because it’s green, wet, crumbly and is teamed with nature, the psychology behind using it is that it’s this sort of organic matter, an assumption that it’s a harmless material.”

There have been no official studies published on the environmental impact of floral foam.”

Of concern too is the fact that there are no directions for users on how to dispose of the floral foam waste. While much of it, we can presume, ends up in landfill, it is common for florists to also pour water containing the foam fragments down the sink. As Rita says, “the problem is that it’s the same as any other plastic – it breaks down into microplastics. This is a poorly funded area of research, but there is a growing awareness that all plastics are having a detrimental impact on marine ecosystems. Those little pieces are very small. You can imagine in an aquatic environment, those little bits of foam look like biological particles, and could easily be mistaken for food. Microplastics are a huge problem because they are entering the food system at the micro level. And if you consider that floristry is the only application for the product and it is designed to be used wet, it’s amazing that nobody ever considered, ‘what happens to the stuff when it’s washed down the sink?’”

An anemone surrounded by floral foam fragments. Image by Professor John West
Phenolfoam. Image by Professor John West

The Australian Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for a popular brand of floral foam outlines that there has been no examination of its ecological impact whatsoever, and that the general advice for disposal is to contact one’s local regulator. Rita did just that, and the Victorian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) had no guidelines in place to advise consumers. Following Rita’s lead, (and feeling very Erin Brockovich), I contacted the NSW EPA who, although having no specific guidelines for its disposal to refer me to, saw no pressing issue with this, as it’s a ‘solid’ product, and assumed people would be putting it in the bin, but to consult the MSDS for further clarification (!)

Alarmingly, there are thousands of videos posted on instagram under hashtags such as #floralfoam, #floralfoamcrushing, and #floralfoamasmr (which, in case anyone is ignorant to internet abbreviations like me, stands for ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’). All over the world, people are posting themselves crushing blocks of floral foam, mixing it with glitter (another seemingly innocent plastic that ends up in waterways), water and other substances. Arguably, it’s an ecological nightmare unfolding under the guise of craft and what is meant to be a mesmerising process of cutting and playing with a texturally curious substance, of a similarly addictive ilk to popping bubble wrap.

So, what’s Rita’s advice for flower lovers and buyers concerned about floral foam? Remember that consumers have a lot of power.”

Just like taking our own reusable cup to get a coffee and bringing our own bag to the shop, we can request (at our local florist) that our arrangement not be assembled with floral foam, and explain our concerns about the product if the florist seems confused. And we can simply choose not to buy pre-arranged bouquets at places like supermarkets if they are assembled using floral foam. If we are planning a special event such as a wedding or funeral (where floral displays are often more complex, and the use of a lot of floral foam is commonplace), then we should be mindful of opting for florists who will draw on alternative, eco-friendly methods of displaying flowers.

The @nofloralfoam account is a celebration of this very floristry that doesn’t cost the earth.”

It promotes pictures of artistic displays of blooms, hung in place without the industry’s ubiquitous green foam. It shows that creative floristry can be achieved with a little extra effort and ingenuity. As Rita says, “the page is celebrating creative initiatives that don’t use it. It’s reminding people to get out of this static way of presenting flowers. Apart from its environmental effects, with floral foam you’re losing the natural movement of an orchestration of flowers.”

At the end of our chat, Rita and I agree that it’s paradoxical that we give and receive flowers as a way of celebrating the ultimate beauty of nature, only to create so much waste out of the process that depletes natural world. Time to abandon floral foam? Count me in.

Floral design by Rita Feldman of Feld Floral
Image of Cecilia Fox installation at 'Flowering Now' by Blossom Daisy Creative