RESOURCE EFFICIENCY & RECYCLING
All products at some point reach the end of their working lives. In that respect, flexible polyurethane starts with a major advantage: it is made to last as long as the product it is used in, from several years in bedding applications, up to decades for some upholstered furniture.
Public authorities at EU level and in the Member States have a strategic role to play in creating the framework in which recovery and recycling technologies can develop and thrive: via research funding and promotion of pilot projects, via the creation of a stable investment environment and by tackling some of the legal challenges highlighted in this document.
The PU foam supply chain has since the very beginning of the industry in the 1950’s worked hard to re-use waste at the production stage. It has considerably reduced its environmental footprint over the past decades. The use of raw materials from renewable sources is increasing drastically as new technologies are being put on the market. With this state of mind, it confidently also looks forward to improving the ways it product is addressed at the end-of-its-life.
The industry has in recent years invested heavily into developing existing and new recycling technologies for flexible polyurethane foam, as part of companies’ commitments towards reducing the impact of their products on the environment, but also as a logical consequence of the evolving legal framework.
The obvious and in theory easiest way of recycling EoL PU foam is simply to reuse it or to recycle it into a new PU product (such as PU bonded foam). Mechanical recycling of polyurethane foam has been existing for decades. Indeed, the flexible PU foam industry is one of the few industries producing very little waste as our production cut-offs are transformed into so called trim (foam flocks), which in turn can become rebonded foam used in products such as: e.g. carpet underlay, gym mats, acoustic insulation.
Chemical recycling is a process whereby flexible polyurethane foam is broken down into its specific constituent chemical raw materials, which can be used again to make fresh foam. The technology has been in use at an industrial scale in Europe since 2013 for trim foam from virgin production and has now evolved to also be able to recycle post-consumer foams. Chemical recycling is however more challenging for EoL PU foam due to the huge variation in types of foam collected and the absence of information on the chemical composition of these foams. But we are now getting there. There are several technologies available for the chemical recycling of PU foam (acidolysis, hydrolysis, aminolysis and glycolysis) differentiated by the base material they use to dissolve PU foam.
There are 3 main technologies for thermochemical recycling of polyurethane foam: pyrolysis, gasification and hydrogenation. Apart from this technical difference the underlying principle between the three technologies is that their goal is to transform the solid municipal waste (including EoL PU foam) into gas that can be further used, notably as raw material for the chemical industry or as fuel. For that, there is no need for separate collection.
By some estimations, around 40 million mattresses reach End-of-life stage in Europe each year. For illustration, if they were all stacked up, the height would be around 904 Mount Everests. While a lot of effort across the industry has been made to tackle this, here is a brief overview of the ongoing challenges: i. Getting access to the resource at local level, ii. Designing for cost-efficient dismantling, iii. Creating a market for recyclates, iv. Creating the conditions for investments, v. Sorting of foams for better recycling, vi. Recycling all foam components, vii. Harmonization of (End-of-life) legislation and viii. Recycled content certification.