Should we say farewell to foam?

Pip Bensley ponders the future of this floristry favourite and looks at more ecologically sound alternatives

Floral foam revolutionised the floristry industry in the 1950s, making everyday jobs easier
and therefore cheaper. Instead of having to create moss bases for funeral designs, floral foam
could be bought in advance and was ready to use in a couple of minutes. Floral designs could be created and transported without water splashing around the delivery van, and flowers could be arranged in every direction.
As a result, arranging flowers became much simpler. Now, flower arrangers and florists are becoming aware of the issues surrounding floral foam, and other single-use plastics, following the David Attenborough series Blue Planet II. And there are lots of ‘facts’ being spread around. But how much is true and where do the facts leave us? I don’t think anyone would argue that using floral foam – which is phenolic foam, a form of plastic – is a good thing. We’re all becoming aware of the damage to our world from materials that can’t be recycled or biodegraded.

Where are we now?
Floral foam comes from several manufacturers including Val Spicer, Chrysal, Trident and market leader OASIS® Floral Products which markets the product OASIS® Floral Foam. OASIS® Floral Products is working hard to develop a game-changing foam that biodegrades fully but costs around the same as normal floral foam. But in the meantime, they have come up with the first partly biodegradable foam. You can spot it easily as it’s brown.
So, does it biodegrade? And if so how fast? Does it just physically break apart into microplastics? We asked Anthony Hart, Marketing Director of OASIS® Floral Products, the definition of a biodegradable product. He said: “It is a product
that will break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass within a reasonable amount of time in the natural environment. The new foam does biodegrade in modern landfill conditions by 51 per cent in one year and in three years it biodegrades to 90 per cent”
Some designers have commented that they believe the brown foam is either softer or has more dust. Having worked with it extensively we think it is a little softer than standard floral foam but we haven’t found it any dustier. The good news according to Anthony Hart, is that floral foam is not considered a material that is harmful to health. So, it does not have a COSHH safety sheet because it is not deemed to need one in the UK formulation*.

Where does that leave us?
So, is it time to ditch foam completely? There are always different views. Some say it is impossible to work without, others that you should stop using it immediately. The reality is somewhere in between. The quote “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is so apt. Every step in the right direction helps, and hundreds of thousands of
people taking those small steps makes a huge difference.
Flower arranging and floristry are not going to wave farewell to floral foam overnight. It is just not possible.
There are many things to consider, not least the cost implication for florists and their customers. Foam-free designs need more time to prepare and therefore cost more. Some florists simply don’t have the skills needed to produce them and so will need new training. The good news is that you can be part of the change. Simply using less foam will help, so before you pop some foam into a container take time to think “could I do this without foam or can I use a smaller piece of foam?”
Using the new biodegradable foam seems to be a sound option. If you do have to use standard foam then perhaps it is time to think about re-using it, if it is not too damaged by the holes made by your stems. The issue with re-using is that the foam must not dry out. If it does it will not absorb water again efficiently so keep it in a plastic bag tied tightly. Only insert the stems a couple of centimetres into the foam. If you do this you can simply turn your piece of foam over and start again. It’s also time to explore the old techniques that were used before the advent of floral foam. We all used to manage before, so we can again. It is undoubtedly slower and more time-consuming, but mastering these techniques can be very rewarding especially for flower arrangers who tend to have more time at their fingertips than florists.

Techniques to try
Chicken wire is a key mechanic to learn how to work with. Look at the article in our summer issue giving you the perfect wire-folding technique from the late Susie Edwards, who worked at Constance Spry, the worldfamous florist and decorator, in the 1960s. You can use it for everything from small containers to full-size flower walls. If creating a flower wall, team chicken wire filled with moss and individual flower cones for the more vulnerable flowers. There are ready-made versions of the chicken wire mechanics but they are made
from plastic which is okay in the hands of someone who will re-use
them but perhaps doesn’t work for floristry where the customer is likely
to throw them away.
Glass test tubes or recycled plastic orchid tubes are great for using in all
kinds of designs and are extremely adaptable. For work when short
flowers are massed together, such as funeral tributes, you can create
a moss base wrapped in chicken or copper wire and wire the flowers into
it. We will keep bringing readers ideas for foam-free flowers.

Know your foam

Standard Foam
Currently green standard foam is produced by many companies. This kind of foam is also now available from OASIS® Floral Foam in the Noir format which is black. This is brilliant for all kinds of designs as the black seems to really fade into the background, meaning you need less material for the same sized piece of foam. You can also use the black foam as part of the design in contemporary work. It is great in clear glass vases like cubes so that you don’t have to hide the foam with leaves or other materials.

Biodegradable foam
This is currently only available from OASIS® Floral Products. It’s a soft brown which is in itself quite attractive. It is a definite move forward and the constant drive to improve their formulations has put OASIS® Floral Products firmly at the forefront of the industry. It is now available in jumbo blocks and in wreath rings too.

Eco bases
There are two eco products in the foam ranges where plastic bases have been traditionally fixed to standard foam. One is OASIS® NATURE BASE® which uses biodegradable foam in a biodegradable wood resin base. This is a great move forward as it means that an environmentally friendly, foam-based Christmas wreath is now possible.
The other product is OASIS® Biolit which is standard foam in a papiermache base which degrades quickly. The disadvantages with both of these is that they cost at least twice as much as the plastic-based options.

Soaking foam
It is vital to soak any foam correctly.
Fill a container with water containing flower food and gently sit your foam on top. Have any printed name on the foam at the top as this is the direction it soaks best. Let the foam sink naturally until it is sitting just beneath the surface of the water. This will take about a minute. Do not push it under the water or splash water over it to soak it faster. This traps air inside your foam, stopping your flowers getting their water.

Cutting foam
Foam can be dusty so always cut it in a well-ventilated space. Where possible, try to trim or cut foam once it has soaked as this reduces any dust levels, but if you are only using part of a foam brick then cut it dry.

Final thought
There is a great and positive movement to reduce anything that harms the natural world. But making decisions without enough reliable knowledge can be as harmful, if not more so, than the original action.

Floral Foam Tips
•Have the window open when cutting.
• Wipe up any dust with a damp paper towel.
• Cutting foam when wet helps limit any dust.
• Wash your hands before eating.
• Store your foam below eye height to avoid getting dust in your eyes.
• Store in cool, dry conditions out of direct sunlight.