The Best Floral Foam Substitutes for Creating Longer-Lasting Floral Arrangements

You’ve probably seen those green blocks known as Floral Foam or Oasis in flower arrangements, and maybe even used them for hold your flowers in place. Although floral foam has been around for decades, recent scientific studies have shown that the product can be harmful to the environment. Specifically, it breaks down into microplastics that can contaminate water supplies and harm aquatic life. In addition, the dust from the foam can cause respiratory problems for people. For these reasons, major floral events such as the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show and the Slow Flower Summit gave up floral foam. Instead, florists are increasingly leaning towards floral foam substitutes to design their pieces. Here’s why you should too, and what you can use to arrange your flowers instead.

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What is floral foam?

Floral foam is a lightweight, water-absorbent material that can be placed at the bottom of vases and other containers for create a base for floral designs. According to Rita Feldmann, founder of the Sustainable Floristry Network based in Australia, “florists and consumers have long believed that green, crumbly moss is a natural product.” But actually, floral foam is a type of plastic.

The green moss product was not originally invented for flower arranging, but in the 1950s Vernon Smithers of Smithers-Oasis patented it for this use. Feldmann Quickly Says Oasis Floral Foam gained popularity with professional florists because it’s “very cheap and very easy to use. Just cut it, soak it in water and push the stems into it”. The product is particularly useful for arranging flowers in containers that would be difficult to handle without a sturdy base to place the flowers inside. “His invention made very accessible floral design to inexperienced arrangers who couldn’t get the stems to stay where they wanted,” she adds.

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Is floral foam safe?

Although floral foam is made from ingredients that are known carcinogens, such as formaldehyde, only traces of these toxic chemicals remain in the finished product. The biggest concern with floral foam is what happens when it is disposed of. Foam is not recyclable, and although it is technically biodegradable, it actually breaks down into tiny particles called microplastics that can remain in the environment for hundreds of years. Scientists are increasingly concerned about the health risks posed by microplastics in the air and in the water, both for humans and for other creatures.

For example, a study published by RMIT University in Total Environmental Science in 2019 is the first to show that floral foam microplastics impact aquatic creatures. Researchers have found that microplastics physically and chemically harm a range of freshwater and marine species that swallow the particles.

Another recent study, by researchers at Hull York Medical School, is the first to discover microplastics in human lungs. The results indicate that inhalation of microplastics is an important source of exposure. With floral foam, airborne microplastics come from products such as bottles, packaging, clothing and cosmetics. However, it is not yet known exactly how these microplastics can affect humans and other animals.

Until further research can hopefully provide more information about the dangers of microplastics from floral foam and other sources, florists like Tobey Nelson of Tobey Nelson Events + Design, LLC., worry about inhaling the dust released while using the product. Although Oasis recommends that florists use masks when handling their products, many do not. “I just hope that in 10 or 15 years they don’t call it foam lung syndrome or something, like coal miners have black lung disease,” Nelson said.

How to get rid of floral foam

Proper disposal of floral foam can go a long way in preventing more microplastics from contaminating the air and water. Feldmann notes that in a survey of professional florists conducted by the Sustainable Floristry Network, 72% of those who use floral foam admitted to throwing it down the drain after the flowers died, and 15% said they added it to their garden and soil. Additionally, “floral foam has found its way into the natural environment through various routes: buried with coffins, through the water system in mud water, and disposed of in green waste systems, gardens and composts when mixed with the flowers“, says Feldmann.

If you need to get rid of floral foam, experts agree that put it in a landfill is much better than washing it down the drain or adding it to compost or yard waste. When spilling water containing floral foam fragments, Feldmann’s advice is to “pour it through a tightly woven fabric such as an old pillowcase to capture as many of the foam fragments as possible”.

Alternatives to floral foam

According to Nelson, florists may choose to use floral foam because it’s familiar and convenient, “Yeah, it’s inconvenient to remember your reusable grocery bags in your car“, she says. “But we all have to let go of the convenience mentality to have a more sustainable future, and work a little harder to create less impact on the earth.” Nelson adds that many florists may also not be aware that better alternatives exist.

Related: 10 sustainable gardening tips to make your garden greener

Oasis itself now offers a fully compostable product called TerraBrick. The new product is “made from natural, renewable, plant-based coir fiber and a compostable binder”. Like Oasis Floral Foam, TerraBricks absorb water to keep flowers hydrated while supporting stems in an arrangement. Then the coir product can be safely composted and used in the garden. Another the new option is Oshun Pouch, created in 2020 by CEO Kirsten VanDijk of New Age Floral. The pouch is filled with a compostable material that expands in water to withstand even the largest coffin spray, says VanDijk.

There are even more ways to help support flower arrangements, including floral frogs, chicken wire, and decorative stones or beads in the vase. Or you can get creative with whatever is at hand, as VanDijk proved when she made her first sustainable design for a garden club. Instead of floral foam, “I cut a watermelon in half and put some birds of paradise in it.” A watermelon obviously won’t last as long as a floral foam, but that’s kind of the point. VanDijk says it worked perfectly for a design that only needed to hold only one day.

With more alternatives like these at our fingertips and a growing awareness of the negative impacts of floral foam, it’s clear that following the #nofloralfoam trend is a no-brainer. Perhaps that’s why, as the floristry industry strives to improve its overall sustainability, TJ McGrath of TJ McGrath Design believes “eliminating floral foam is the top priority.”

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