Couch burning ‘flunks sustainability 101’
Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 07:09
Whether it be a Mountaineer victory, a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration or the death of Osama Bin Laden, students at West Virginia University are known for celebrating by setting couches ablaze.
In 2011 The City of Morgantown re-evaluated its policy on city couch torchings. Now, fire-starters could face felony charges of third or fourth-degree arson, and if convicted, could spend up to three years in prison.
While facing criminal charges may be on the minds of some fire-starters, many may not understand the environmental implications the flame-engulfed sofa may yield.
In its article "Four wasteful college football traditions," the Mother Nature Network recently listed WVU’s couch burning history as one of the "college celebrations (that) flunk sustainability 101."
MNN reporter Matt Hickman said the burning of couches poses not only an issue of waste but also severe issues that cause danger to the environment.
Hickman said many modern couches contain the flame-retardant chemical called Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE), which releases harmful toxins into the environment when burned.
"The flame-retardant that’s found in furniture is very toxic. There was an effort to phase out PBDE in 2005, but it still makes up about 10 percent on the weight in couches today," he said. "There has been a modern-day link with the retardant to hormonal diseases and cancer.
You burn these couches, and it is releasing smoke and gas with chemicals in it. It’s highly pollutant."
Hickman said there has been a movement in recent years to remove flame-retardant chemicals such as PBDE from furniture. However, he said lobbyists have made a huge effort to keep the multi-million dollar chemical industry alive.
WVU Conservation Specialist for Facilities Management Traci Liebig said furniture also has other materials aside from PBDE that can yield harmful effects when burned.
"In the materials used to make couches, there’s a lot of polyester fibers and plastic. The foam padding
inside is also derived from plastic," she said. "Obviously, burning plastic is very harmful for the environment."
Liebig also said couch burning poses a waste issue for WVU students.
"Yeah, it is wasteful," she said. "It shouldn’t happen at all, but especially because (the couches) could be put to some other use and not just have students burning them."
Liebig said the University hosts an end of the year rummage sale as a way to eliminate
furniture waste from students.
"Every year at the Blue and Gold Mine sale we receive more than 50 couches," she said. "Students are only here for part of the year, so they don’t want to have to go to IKEA to buy an $800 couch."
Liebig said the unsold couches from the sale go toward city fire safety courses.
When the city passed the ordinance to make couch burnings a felony, students began formulating plans to host Fire Department sanctioned couch burnings.
Hickman said while a sanctioned event may eliminate the mess and chaos associated with the fires, it is not the perfect environmental solution.
"It is a better alternative," he said. "It’s less messy and is controlled, but there’s still that negative exposure to the environment. It’s a solution, not a perfect solution."
Other wasteful school traditions featured in the MNN article include cleat burning at Syracuse University, tree toilet-papering at Auburn University and touchdown balloons at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
For more information, visit www.mnn.com.