Q. We are getting some beanbag chairs for our kids. Wondering what the most environmentally friendly filling is for beanbags. I know most use plastic. What natural or less harmful alternatives exist?

Brent M.
Burlington

A. Dearest Brent,

I had a beanbag chair growing up. I begged and begged, but my parents were also concerned about store-bought beanbag fillings, so I made it myself out of old organic cotton t-shirts and sand that I nicked from the playground, one cup at a time. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, and nobody could lift it when it was time to move, but oh, how I loved that chair.

Fortunately, kids these days have better options for safe and eco-friendly spherical furniture, Brent. Let’s flop down and take a look.

First, a few words about the fillings we don’t want. Most conventional beanbag chairs you’ll find are stuffed with expanded polystyrene (EPS) beads – the light, crumbly plastic that’s frequently confused with Styrofoam (a similar, name-brand product). That’s because it’s very light and durable enough to last a few years without squishing under the weight of your growing kiddos. Still, EPS should be a DNB (Do Not Buy); it is petroleum-based and presents difficulties at disposal time. Yes, it can be possible to reuse or recycle it, but it’s energy intensive and usually more complicated than putting it out on the curb. Better to avoid it when we can.

Recycled (sometimes called reground) EPS bits are another option, and they’re good in the sense that they keep the white stuff out of landfills. But there is some concern about EPS leaching carcinogenic chemicals. This seems to be a much bigger problem with food containers and hot drinks than it is with beanbag stuffing – in fact, I know of no studies linking that kind of EPS with health risks. But you’ll have to decide where you stand on the safe vs. sorry continuum with that one.

Nor should we be seduced by beanbags filled with polyurethane foam, aka memory foam or compressed foam. This is also petroleum-based and complicated to recycle, but to add insult to injury, it may also be treated with cancer-causing, hormone-disrupting flame retardants. Just say no.

Now, on to the news you can use. A better filling is natural latex foam. Made from the sap of the rubber tree, in its pure form the foam is renewable and doesn’t off-gas dangerous chemicals (because it’s expensive, it’s often mixed with synthetic fillers, so shop carefully). It’s biodegradable and can also, theoretically at least, be composted when its beanbag days are over. Natural latex does often come to us from third world countries, so labor abuses and deforestation can be an issue here – not to mention the shipping footprint. It’s also heavy, and therefore better for smaller beanbag chairs. Still, I’d choose it over the beads above.

Like so many things, though, the beanbag industry may have been needlessly complicating its products when the perfectly natural answer is right there in the name. If I were to repeat my beanbag project today, I’d use something as close to the earth as possible: Popular eco-friendly fillers include buckwheat hulls, dried field peas, popcorn, or rice, and yes, beans. Obviously, all of these will be a lot heavier than airy EPS or foam, and they will vary in terms of comfort and shape. They will probably also require more than just running out to the store to buy them, as natural beanbags are still a specialty item – you might need to buy the cover first and fill it yourself with bulk beans. But that in itself can be a fun project for the little ones, and you can lounge easy knowing you’ve cushioned them with the greenest stuffing out there.

Happy shopping, Brent. Just stay away from the sandbox, and you’ll do fine.

Globuley,

Umbra