Furniture Industry urges reduction of Hazardous Chemicals

Australia’s furnishing industry leaders are being called on to fast-track efforts to ‘design-out’ hazardous chemicals found in everyday household and commercial furniture items.

Commonly used coatings, fumigants, glues, dyes, solvents, moisture and flame retardants can lead to serious human health and environmental impacts. They are also a major obstacle to efforts to recycle materials and products and realise the opportunities of the circular economy.

The Australian Furniture Association (AFA) recently released the ‘Chemicals of Concern Industry Report’ which provides a worrying indictment on the level of hazardous chemical use in everyday furnishing and the industry’s response and action.

The report aligns with the AFA’s research project, ‘Furniture 360’, aimed at reducing commercial furniture waste, encouraging circular economy opportunities within the furniture industry and reducing the use of hazardous chemicals.

Australia generates about 30,000 tonnes of commercial furniture waste each year, with 95% ending up in ever-diminishing landfill sites – that is, without taking into account the mountains of domestic furniture waste that frequently line urban streets. 

Research shows that the chemicals of concern used in a range of furnishing products can lead to environmental and health impacts when they are released into air, water, and soil.

They can also jeopardise positive initiatives to reuse and recycle materials and products, due to the risk of persistent chemicals being transferred into new products or being released into the environment during processing.

‘Furniture 360’ Leader, multi-awarded eco-architect, Mark Thomson, says that the Chemicals of Concern Report is a wake-up call for the entire furniture industry supply chain.  

‘The achievable challenge is for the furniture industry to design-out the use of hazardous chemicals that are present in our homes, schools, workplaces and government buildings.

Many Australian furniture designers and consumers are supporting the eco-labels and industry-led initiatives on offer in this country, but thousands of tonnes of discarded furnishings are still putting hazardous chemicals into the ground, with the danger of contaminating groundwater.  

We must ensure there are sufficient incentives and resources available, so that the entire furniture supply chain is involved in designing with environmentally sound circular economy principles in mind – and consumers are given the information to make more informed purchasing decisions.’ 

The Australian Furniture Association, supported by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) has delivered the ‘Chemicals of Concern’ report to support future industry initiatives and Government regulation.

The industry research indicates that the level of knowledge and awareness of hazardous chemicals amongst many furniture companies is piecemeal and generally addressed in an ad hoc manner – particularly amongst those importing furniture from less regulated countries. 

Data reveals that the systematic frameworks for managing chemicals of concern is generally lacking in Australia, although domestic manufacturers have greater transparency and control over chemicals than import-based companies. Companies working with reputable international suppliers tend to have a more knowledgeable and developed approach to chemicals management.

Chemicals found in household and commercial furnishings include substances such as formaldehyde, phthalates, PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances), isocyanates, alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs) and organotin compounds.

Such chemicals have been associated with a wide range of human health problems, which include affecting the immune and reproductive systems, causing birth defects, behavioural, skin and respiratory problems, headaches, coughing, nausea and cancer. 

Several of the brominated flame retardants that are in common use, were added to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants*, due to their toxicity and persistence in the environment.  

The ‘Project 360’ research project aims to improve repairability and recyclability by designing-out the use of harmful chemicals, increasing the quality and durability of products, enhancing manufacturing standards and encouraging the efficient use of environmentally friendly materials.

Central to the scheme’s success is engaging the entire furniture supply chain, including designers, suppliers, retailers, and manufacturers, in the creation of a Furniture and Furnishing Products Stewardship network.

*Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants

*https://www.pops-gmp.org/res/file/UNEP-POPS-COP_5-INF-27.pdf