Greenwashing and CBC #8: Obusforme EcoLogic Countoured Pillow

Continuing from last week with #8 on the CBC Marketplace "Lousy Labels" greenwashing list is the ObusForme EcoLogic contoured pillow.

As I mentioned last week, Marketplace is a 22 minute show and they did a 10-product countdown, giving them approximately 2 minutes per product, so they had to leave a lot of information out.

Interestingly, when I went to the ObusForme website to see how they were promoting the EcoLogic pillow, I couldn't find it there. Looking a little closer, Marketplace contacted the manufacturer to see what they had to say about it, and it turns out the EcoLogic line is no longer being marketed in Canada.

Oh, Marketplace. Why would you pick a product that isn't even being made anymore? Surely there are products still being actively marketed that are deserving of your "lousy label" sticker.

Oh well. Might as well look at it anyway. I don't know much about memory foam, and why pass up a chance to learn something new?

Lacking the manufacturer's own claims since they're not selling it anymore, I found a few different places selling the EcoLogic pillow online, and checked out what claims they had, figuring they'd probably mostly just repeat what was on the product package instead of putting in the effort to write something new.

These claims on those three websites are all different but have some overlap:

  • "made using all natural castor oil"
  • "inhibits the growth of mold and bacteria" - on one page this is attributed to the castor oil, and on the other two this is attributed to nano-silver particles
  • "made with bamboo fibers" - one page indicates it's the pillow cover, the other two don't specify where the bamboo fibers are used. Two sites claim that the bamboo fibers "eliminate waste" and the other that bamboo is grown "without the use of pesticides or fertilizers and require very little water"

Please remember that these statements are taken from websites not controlled by ObusForme, so these may or may not be the manufacturer's own claims. I am not CBC Marketplace; I can't go around buying $70 discontinued pillows just to write a blog post on them, so I don't know exactly what's written on any of the packages beyond the bits Marketplace zoom in on in their segment and what the manufacturer provides on their website.

Marketplace says in their segment that:

  • most memory foam is made using polyurethane
  • polyurethane gives off chemicals that can irritate your lungs and pollute the air
  • this pillow contains only 8% castor oil replacing the conventional polyurethane

So memory foam is a particular consistency of foamed polyurethane.

Polyurethane is a class of polymers, not a single polymer with a specific formula. According to the MSDS I found, the specific polyurethane used in memory foam is polyhydroxy polyol (which seems to be redundant rather than a chemical name; a polyol is a compound with multiple hydroxyl groups, or a "polyhydroxy" organic molecule) and toluene di-isocyanate. Other polyurethanes will use different polyols and different isocyanates.

For making polyurethane, the choice of polyol makes a big difference to the final properties. It looks like for harder polyurethanes, smaller polyols are used; for softer polyurethanes, larger polyols are used—molecular weights of up to 6000. (Which, for this chemical engineer who deals mostly in inorganic chemistry, is just an absurdly large molecular weight. I'm not used to working with molecular weights much over 300, and in many cases, a lot of that is waters of hydration.)

Toluene di-isocyanate is a much smaller molecule with a well-defined structure:

(Chemical structure image from WikiMedia Commons)

When an -N=C=O group on the toluene di-isocyanate reacts with an -O-H group on the polyol, the resulting connection is called a urethane.

(Chemical reaction image from WikiMedia Commons)

Since a polyol has at least two -O-H groups and toluene di-isocyanate has two -N=C=O groups, they can make long chains of poly-urethane connections.

Ok, that's the very basic background of memory foam and polyurethane. On to the claims.

Made using all-natural castor oil: if the 8% figure is correct, then castor oil is an ingredient, but a minor one. Not a lie, but misleading since they don't say it's a fairly small fraction of the ingredients. Castor oil is a triglyceride made up of a trio of ricinoleic acids attached to the glycerol anchor at one end. Break the ricinoleic acid off the glycerol, and you have a polyol, although quite a short one. Based on what I learned about polyols (described above), shorter polyols make for harder polyurethanes, so if 100% of the polyol were replaced with castor oil derived polyol, the memory foam would be ... well, something different, anyway. Probably not squishy like memory foam is, unless the ricinoleic acid were processed into a longer chain before it went through the urethane reaction.

Inhibits the growth of mold and bacteria: Castor oil is a known antifungal agent although how much activity it has when in a polyurethane foam I couldn't tell you. If the antifungal agent is silver nanoparticles as a couple of the sites claim, silver is also a known antibacterial agent.

Made with bamboo fibers and the associated eco-friendly claims: bamboo is a giant grass that grows like crazy, grows back quickly when you cut it down, and can be harvested every 5 years or so. Like grass, cutting the stems doesn't kill them, and they grow back from the roots. Bamboo fibers used for fabric is either mechanically processed into coarse linen-type fibers, or chemically processed into rayon, a fine and soft synthetic fiber with a natural feedstock (conventionally, wood pulp).

Most memory foam is made from polyurethane: I'd almost say all memory foam is a polyurethane foam. At least, every reference I found assumed that. I suppose it's possible that there is a foamed product with the same properties as memory foam which isn't made from polyurethane, but I didn't run across any this week. Any foam experts who know of one, I'd love to hear about it.

Polyurethane gives off chemicals that can irritate your lungs and pollute the air: as Marketplace don't specify what those chemicals are, I have to go back to the memory foam MSDS, which lists the ingredients that go into polyurethane foam as polyhydroxy polyol, toluene di-isocyanate, catalysts, surfactants, pigments, and water. As mentioned earlier, polyurethane is a class of materials, so exactly which polyol, catalyst, surfactant, and pigment is in a given item can vary. Some catalysts are toxic and are being phased out; newer non-toxic ones are available, which claim the same performance without the toxicity. A lot of these are minerals so may not be a source of vapours. There are also loads of types of surfactants, each one suited for a different type of polyurethane. The first data sheet I looked at on that page said that it had a low contribution to VOCs, so these are a candidate for what Marketplace is referring to. The polyols as I mentioned earlier have huge molecular weights and are highly unlikely to get into the gas phase by virtue of their sheer size and weight, even before they're polymerized. The toluene di-isocyanate, when pure and prior to the urethane polymerization reaction, has a pungent odor and can cause respiratory distress as well as reactions on the skin. However once reacted and converted into a polyurethane, the only respiratory warnings on the memory foam MSDS have to do with breathing the dust generated from cutting the foam to shape, and for firefighters. If there is any unreacted toluene di-isocyanate in the foam, this could off-gas and cause respiratory irritation, especially if you stick your face in the foam for hours on end, as one tends to do with pillows. So, it's possible, especially if your lungs are already sensitive to irritants.

This pillow only contains 8% castor oil: well, as I said above, castor oil as the sole polyol may not make a polyurethane with the right properties to be a memory foam. Also, I note that this claim has conflicting sources; on one page Marketplace says the manufacturer says 8%, but on the manufacturer's response page they say "critics" say 8% and the manufacturer's response they quote there says nothing about castor oil. At any rate, even if 100% of the polyol source were derived from castor oil, the polyurethane foam wouldn't be 100% castor oil derived, because in order to be a polyurethane, it must alternate polyols with isocyanates. Looking at the bit of the package that Marketplace zoom in on before they obscure part of the sentence with their red circle, the part they ignore is talking about the mold and bacteria preventive properties of castor oil. It's possible that the castor oil isn't intended to be part of the polyurethane at all, but was added only to stop mold growth. (Keeping stuff dry is the best defence against mold growth, but drooling on pillows happens to a lot of people.)

After all that, my conclusion?

It doesn't seem to be any more or less eco-friendly than the normal line of memory foam pillows other than having a bamboo-derived cover, unless the anti-mold agent used in the normal line is significantly more dangerous to the environment. So I'd probably call this one greenwashing, but also kind of irrelevant as it isn't marketed or produced anymore. I guess it wasn't popular enough to maintain as a separate product line.

Greenwashing series:
10: Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug killer
9: Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent
8: Obusforme EcoLogic Contoured pillow
7: Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner
6: Eco Collection Bath Mitt
5: Vim PowerPro Naturals
4: Organic Melt Ice Remover
3: T-fal Natura frying pan
2: Biodegradable J Cloth
1: Dawn Antibacterial Hand Soap
Final thoughts

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