The European Union has set itself the objective to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, decoupling economic growth from resource use. It has embarked on an ambitious journey to revise all public policies in areas as varied as agriculture, construction, transport, industry, or financial markets – just to name a few – in order to reorient them towards carbon neutrality. This will also inevitably affect the main supply chains for flexible polyurethane foam, namely upholstered furniture, bedding, and transport.
In foam manufacturing, a lot can be done to reduce a company’s carbon footprint. For example, by switching to green electricity, improving production processes and logistics, reducing the use of consumables or optimizing foam production and conversion. The greatest results can however be achieved at the level of chemical raw materials, which account for 93% of the global warming potential of foam production (cradle to gate) according to the ecoprofiles for flexible PU foam made in Europe.
Foam producers in Europe increasingly start using lower carbon solutions offered by chemical raw material suppliers. Some solutions are well established technologies such as natural oil polyols (NOP) and some are just arriving onto the market with a major focus on resource conservation and integration of recycled content into products. For flexible foams, there are three main technologies allowing to provide such low carbon recycled content:
- Mechanical recycling: This is nothing new. For decades the foam industry has recycled its production trim into flakes or bonded foam for making new products. In recent years, an ever-increasing number of companies have started to process post-consumer foams from waste mattresses for recycling, especially in Western Europe. Research has shown that possible biological contamination of the foam is well dealt with during the processing of the foam because of the high temperatures involved. And analysis made by EUROPUR has also shown that legacy chemicals (chemicals that were used in the past and have been banned since) are also not an issue for most applications and regions of Europe. The main issues with mechanical recycling are i) the properties of rebond that do not qualify it to replace new foam in prime applications and ii) the demand from downstream markets for the recyclates.
- Depolymerization is a promising complement to mechanical recycling, allowing to answer these two issues. Various technologies are being developed but the principle is always the same: foam is broken down in a reactor to recover the main raw materials it was made from. An industrial scale factory recycling foam into recycled polyols (repolyols) is currently operating in France and two more will be launched in 2023: one in Spain and one in the Netherlands. All three plants are focusing on producing repolyols with a robust technology that can process the vast majority of post-consumer foams without requiring high levels of sorting. The limitation of the use of such a robust technology is that the repolyol produced can currently not replace 100% of virgin polyols in foam formulations. But stakeholders are working at advanced technologies (currently at pilot stage) that will allow to do so for many applications. These technologies will also allow recovering the amines from the depolymerization reactor to feed them into diisocyanates production processes thus effectively allowing to recycle both main raw materials polyurethane foam is made with. To get there, these technologies will however require that foams are sorted before they enter the reactor, which means that cost-efficient sorting processes also need to be developed. There also some interesting developments are on the way, with companies developing marking technologies or modifying sorting systems for thermoplastics to adapt them to polyurethane foam.
- Recycled content in polyurethanes does not necessarily need to come from polyurethanes. With various advanced chemical recyling technologies, recyclates coming from waste from agriculture or forestry, mixed plastics or waste oils can be fed into crackers of the chemical industry to produce new chemical raw materials. The great advantage is that these raw materials have exactly the same properties as fossil-based virgin raw materials. The recycled (bio) content and the carbon savings it entails are allocated to the chemicals produced via so-called mass balance accounting, which in turn requires stringent certification to trace the recycled content/carbon savings throughout the supply chain up to the end product. The first raw materials produced in this way are now available to the polyurethane foam industry in Europe and more and more foam producers offer foams made with mass balance diisocyanates or polyols. As is the case with many new technologies, the market is currently faster than regulation on this matter. The wider plastics industry has therefore called upon the European Commission to propose rules for mass balance accounting to give economic operators the legal certainty they need. This should be solved in the coming two years.
After many decades where the range of raw materials available to the flexible polyurethane foam industry was very largely fossil-based, a whole new diversity of raw materials is progressively being offered to foam producers, allowing them to mix and choose the best way for them for offering low-carbon foams to their customers. By requiring compulsory recycled content for furniture, mattresses and for the plastics fraction of automobiles, legislation will also create a market for these products. While this is just the start of the journey and many technologies are not at industrial scale yet or materials are only available in limited quantities, one can say with a relatively high level of confidence that we are entering a period of quite unprecedented change in the flexible foam industry, of a magnitude this industry has not seen since it started in the 1950s.