A question often asked about bean bags, is whether the filling is safe and eco-friendly. More and more people are concerned about how their purchases are affecting the environment, and a concerted effort is being made to live sustainably with future generations in mind. Because of this, some people have begun to avoid the use of plastics, Styrofoam, and other manmade products, and beanbag beans have become a primary concern. However, when these beads are produced according to accepted manufacturing standards and recycled or disposed of properly, they are considered to be an eco-friendly material.
What Is Bean Bag Filling?
To be able to understand how bean bag filling does or does not affect the environment, it is first necessary to comprehend what filling is and how it is manufactured. The vast majority of, and best quality, bean bag filling is made from virgin expanded polystyrene (EPS) beads.
EPS is considered one of the best materials made for both packaging and construction. It is very popular in the electronics industry, and EPS foam protects many other items the average person purchases every day. There are some qualities that make it a prized material in many industries, including bean bag design and manufacturing. It is light yet durable, rigid and resistant to pressure. It also provides superior thermal insulation and can be fabricated in numerous ways for a broad range of applications.
How is EPS Manufactured?
EPS is born from a material manufactured specifically for the process of expansion through the gasses it contains. Before it goes through this process, it is known as expandable polystyrene, which is a hard plastic that includes an expansion agent. It is created as a derivative of crude oil when hydrocarbons are separated and refined into fuel products, such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and kerosene. Plastics comprise about 4 percent of the 4,000 products made through the polymerization of oil, and of that total, only about 1 percent is EPS.
When making bean bag chair filling, expandable polystyrene is heated to 80° C to 100° C in machines called pre-expanders. This treatment causes the raw material to transform into cellular beads with pockets of air inside. When the beads cool and dry, a vacuum forms in the center, which improves their elasticity and capacity for expansion. Finally, the beads are dropped into molds and steamed until they bind together in the desired shape, which is, in this case, larger beads.
For the manufacturing process, steam generated through the burning of natural gas is the primary energy source. Water consumption is extremely low, and the water is reused several times. Also, no solid waste is generated during manufacturing, and scrap pieces are put back into production until all the material is used. Because of these processes, the only pollution is from the low emissions of burning natural gas.
Properties of EPS Beads
EPS is prized for its many unique properties, including all of the following:
- Lightweight – EPS is only 2 percent solid material. The other 98 percent is air. These components make it one of the lightest materials of all, and it has less mass than nearly any other type of bean bag filling.
- Energy absorption – EPS absorbs a high amount of energy, making it the perfect material to resist the weight of a person without becoming crushed. For these reasons, it is also used as a packaging material for sensitive electronic equipment, padding for safety helmets and lining for children’s car seats.
- Compression – EPS resists compression so that even when heavy weights and pressures are applied, it bounces back to its original form. This resistance makes it durable, and the beads usually remain in good shape inside regularly used bean bags for several years.
- Humidity resistance – EPS is not affected by moisture because it is impervious to water and water vapor.
- Chemical resistance – EPS is highly resistant to chemicals, and it is so hygienic that it is used as packaging for foods and pharmaceuticals.
All of the above properties make EPS a very favorable material for many applications, including construction. Its features of compression resistance and energy absorption allow it to be used safely as insulation for load-bearing roofs, as substrate for flooring and road building.
Energy Analysis of EPS
Energy analysis is the method scientists use to determine the total impact of a material or product from the time it is produced to the time it is disposed. Everything we make and do has some effect on the environment, and an energy analysis is a good way to measure that impact. Even if a company claims that the materials in their products are eco-friendly, the statement means nothing without backing by an energy or lifecycle analysis that includes measurements of the following factors:
- Pollution to the air and water
- Energy consumption during production and use
- Carbon footprint and potential to add to global warming
- Energy used for disposal
- Final disposal volume
In determining whether EPS is an environmentally friendly material, consider the following comparisons in which lower numbers in the analysis mean the material has less of an impact:
- Disposable Cups – Paper manufacturers would have you believe that their cups are much more environmentally friendly than Styrofoam cups. But an analysis of the chemicals, electricity, water, steam and crude petroleum shows that EPS has a rating of one in each while paper cups have an average rating of 35.
- Packaging – As a packaging material, EPS also has a score of one in each of the following categories: energy consumption, pollution, the potential for global warming, solid waste volume, cost, and weight. However, pulpboard, fiberboard, wood, and paper packaging have a combined average rating of three.
Recycling Bean Bag Beads
EPS is 100 percent recyclable, and tens of thousands of tons are recycled each year. Several organizations, both national and international, are also now in operation to inform consumers how and where EPS can be recycled. In some locations, it can be picked up curbside, but in others, it must be taken to a local recycling center.
Most of the EPS collected is reformed and used for construction, but new processes are available that can convert the material into other plastics. In addition, EPS can be burned to create heat, which is an efficient use of its energy potential, and when done correctly, heat generation through EPS creates no toxic emissions and very low levels of non-toxic ash.