The Netherlands: a world-leader in mattress recycling
Every year, over 30 million mattresses are discarded in the European Union. If they were all stacked up, the pile would be 678 times the height of Mount Everest. In the Netherlands alone, 1.5 million mattresses are discarded on annual basis. That’s a potential waste pile of 100 times the height of the Eiffel Tower.
In Europe, most of discarded mattresses are sent to energy recovery plants, which means that valuable materials that could be recycled are actually burnt. In the Netherlands, the situation is by now already radically different, with an estimated 75% of mattresses being collected and recycled . The company RetourMatras alone just announced that it handled 1 million mattresses in 2020 at 3 of its Dutch locations.
Among the many materials used in mattresses, polyurethane foam is a material of choice because of its unique comfort properties and durability. To contribute to mattress recycling in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe, the polyurethane supply chain is currently investing heavily into expanding existing and developing new recycling technologies.
Mechanical recycling of polyurethane foam has been existing for decades. Indeed, we are one of the few industries producing very little waste as our production cut-offs are transformed into so called ‘rebonded foam’ used in products such as carpet underlay, gym mats, acoustic insulation. Post-consumer foams from discarded mattresses can perfectly be recycled that way too. It is what RetourMatras are doing in the Netherlands. Foam producer Recticel, which has a production plant in Kesteren, also has a recycling plant in Angers (France) processing post-consumer foams into acoustic insulation panels. The reality is however that if all countries were starting to recycle post-consumer foams, market outlets for the recyclates would not be able to absorb all the available volumes. That is why other technologies need to be developed.
Chemical recycling is a process whereby polyurethane foam is broken down into its constituent chemical raw materials. When a particular kind of chemical recycling, glycolysis, is used polyol can be obtained, which can be used again to make fresh foam. The glycolysis technology has been in use at an industrial scale in Europe since 2013 for post-industrial waste (i.e. production cut-offs) and has now evolved to also be able to recycle post-consumer foams. The latter is more difficult to achieve because of the great variation in age and composition of materials coming from discarded mattresses. But we are now getting there. The company Dowhas launched a mattress recycling programme called Renuva™ and is a partner in the construction of Europe’s first chemical recycling plant for post-consumer polyurethane foam in Semoy (France). Foam Producer The Vita Group, which operates foam production plants in Breda and Hillegom, has been the first one to officially announce that they will use recycled polyol from the plant to make new polyurethane foams.
Many other projects on chemical recycling of polyurethane foam are currently making rapid progress including in the Netherlands. Early December, Retour Matras and its shareholders Ikea and Renewi Nederland have announced plans to expand the company’s recycling capabilities with chemical recycling, using glycolysis technology developed by Ikano Industry in Poland. A number of publicly funded projects are also looking at chemical recycling across Europe, notably the PureSmartproject of which Recticel is the project leader, the Polynspire project and the Danish RePURpose project around mattress manufacturer Tempur. Together all these projects should result in a rapid roll-out of the technology across the continent in the coming years.
Polyurethanes with new properties
Unlike most other plastics, polyurethane foam cannot just be melted, reduced into pellets and re-used at the end of its life. That is why the polyurethane industry has been working so hard at developing chemical recycling technologies. However, some players are also seeking to develop a new type of polyurethanes – called Covalent Adaptable Polyurethane (CAPU) – which would have the same properties as other plastics for easier recycling. This is also one of the objectives of the above-mentioned PureSmart Project.
The future of mattress and foam recycling
Speaking about these major evolutions in recycling options for mattresses and polyurethane foam, Patrick de Kort, Regulatory Affairs Manager of EUROPUR, said “This is a very exciting time for the recycling of mattresses and flexible polyurethane foam. With better collection and dismantling capabilities and new recycling technologies reaching market stage, we can finally be confident that more and more valuable materials will be recycled. These technologies will enable the recycling of material from mattresses reaching their end-of-life stage today instead of various mattresses that are designed for recycling which will only reach this stage in 10 – 15 years. And the Netherlands is clearly at the forefront of this in Europe together with France. In our country, I’m glad to say that we now have solutions for dealing with the 100+ Eiffel Towers of mattresses reaching the end-of-life stage every year in an environmentally sound manner”.