Five layers of wood wool in a cushion used for a chair.

Replacing foam to create a more sustainable icon

If you prefer a particular chair in your house, you are not alone. Many of us have our go-to chair because the cushion gives just the right amount of comfort and relaxes us like nothing else does. But do you know that many commonly used cushions are made of foam, which is often not biodegradable? IKEA has for long been on the lookout to find alternates to reduce dependency on foam. Piotr Jakubiak tells us about the material he has discovered that can help us live (sit really) more sustainably. 

About a week ago, Piotr Jakubiak received a call from his mother. It was quite a routine call, and besides the usual catching up, she excitedly showed him the images of her latest purchase. His mom had bought new cushions for the POÄNG chair in her house.

A wide smile appeared on Piotr's face as his mom described her happiness and satisfaction with the new purchase.  Because when your mom compliments you, you know she means it!

"She took the new cushion because of the comfort. It's a bit firmer than the traditional POÄNG cushion, and she preferred that", says Piotr.

A man in a burgundy sweater sitting in a yellow armchair.
Piotr Jakubiak, Deployment Leader at IKEA Purchasing in Poland.
Piotr felt so pleased with his mother's unbiased review because the new cushion was his creation! Piotr had been working on this cushion for nearly three years, though his mother had no idea about it. 

The new cushion material

IKEA has charted out a mission to use more sustainable materials in its products. IKEA has committed to using only renewable and recycled materials and reducing the total IKEA climate footprint by an average of 70% per product by 2030. 

The aim means IKEA is looking at various ways of using renewable and recycled materials. One of the top materials that have been identified as ripe for change is foam. Foam is often fossil-based and is not biodegradable. 

Hence since 2018, Piotr, the deployment leader at IKEA Purchasing in Poland, has been looking for a good material to replace the foam traditionally used in the seat of the iconic POÄNG chair as a first step. 

And, Piotr found just that. The new cushion that has been available in Poland since November this year has a new material – wood fibre. But customers won't feel the difference, and it is as comfortable as ever before. 


Wood fibre

Wood fibre is softwood shavings. Traditionally, wood fibre is used in the building industry as an isolation material. It is an effective heat and sound insulating material often used in the sandwich construction of homes. These houses are not made of bricks or concrete but from wooden beams with isolation and are relatively common in Sweden, Japan, Germany and Poland.
 
Three stages of components being used for wood wool – wood chips, wood shavings and the final wood wool.

Wood fibre is made out of softwood shavings.

It also has great insulating properties and has often been used for creating cooling pads for desert coolers in countries like India that see dry summer months. It is also used for packaging and stuffing soft toys. 

Piotr describes the event of coming across wood fibre as a potential material to replace foam as a "coincidence."

According to him, a former colleague came across wood fibre by chance and decided to try it out for replacing the foam. 

"At IKEA, we want to be more friendly to the environment. Conventional foam is not biodegradable. So, when a customer discards a mattress or a sofa, and if it goes to the landfill, the foam stays there and does not decompose", says Piotr. 

But polyurethane foam is not easy to replace. It's quite a good material because of its properties, such as being lightweight, comfortable, and easy to shape. All of this meant that Piotr and his team had a massive task of finding a replacement material with all the qualities of foam, except the negative environmental impact and cost-efficiency.
 
Shavings of wood being pressed into wood wool.
Wood fibre is generally a by-product of the lumber industry.
The wood fibre seems like a good substitute. Generally, a by-product of the lumber industry, it can also be sourced from both old and new wood, including wood waste in furniture production. Because it's wood shavings, it is biodegradable and a tad more economical than foam. 


Innovation

But wood fibre still needs innovation and processing before it can be used in furniture. Piotr and his team seem to have found the right formula, innovating a unique use for wood fibre. 

The wood fibre consists of two components: wood and the bi-component, which is like a glue that binds the wood fibre hair together and offers resilience. In the building industry, what they typically use is 97 per cent wood and 3 per cent bi-component. But in furniture, one needs flexibility. So, for proper application, Piotr and his team have used 6-7 per cent of bi-component for beds and 16-17 per cent for armchairs like POÄNG. 

"Normally, one would use wood fibre in the flat panels for creating the walls of a house. But hopefully, we are the only ones who worked on the idea of adding more bi-component to the wood fibre to increase its resilience and make it work well in a bed and an armchair”, says Piotr.
Portrait of a man in a grey shirt standing with his arms crossed.
Piotr Jakubiak.
Wood wool in the seat of a chair.

The POÄNG cushion with wood fibre filling.

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