However, he pointed out the intrinsic difficulty of doing so with polyurethane foams.: “For IKEA, foam is a material of specific challenges as it is traditionally produced by crude-oil based raw materials and difficult to recycle,” he said
For Bart Ten Brink of FoamPartner, this difficulty can make the task seem to be “almost overwhelming.” Ten Brink also stressed the need for cooperation amongst the different stakeholder groups in flexible polyurethane foam and for making a start on closing the sustainability circles: “The industry may feel it is only taking small steps but it is important to take them rather than dream of the complete solution,” said Ten Brink.
“Big changes always start with small steps at first,” he added. “The sum of many small steps can easily lead to the same big end result,” he added.
Moller suggested that furniture retailers can help with sustainability. He said it is IKEA’s aim to “improve the sustainability profile of foam and to use foam in products where the properties are best utilised.”
Moller continued: “IKEA does not only work with how it should be used in the final product but also the raw materials sourcing, where it is produced and how to handle the product’s end-of-life.
He said IKEA is uniquely positioned in a unique integrated value chain where “we design, manufacture, transport and sell the goods.
“This enables us to approach sustainability from several different parts of the chain, from raw materials to product design and to its end-of life,” he added.
Ten Brink agreed and added: “Recycling has to be incorporated into product design.”
Moller said: “This enables us to have a positive influence on the entire process and ultimately, that means lower prices and more sustainable products.”
Recycling polyurethane products back into reusable materials does have a number of difficulties. The technical issues include: how to convert polyurethane into polyols of sufficiently high quality to meet current environmental standards.
Some problems are logistical, such as how can flexible polyurethane be made dense enough to be cost-effectively transported to recycling stations for example.
According to Ten Brink, “the circular economy will be a fact of life in the future, we have to find ways to ensure that effective, efficient recycling is possible.”
“Manufacturing and recycling must be both energy and resource efficient,” he added.
Grunert said: “Of course, polyurethanes can be recycled. The polyurethane industry has developed a bunch of technically feasible solutions for the recycling of all types of PU that exist. But, which is best for the individual needs of society will have to be considered case by case in order to identify the best regional, ecological and economic solutions.”
But Ferdinand Kleppmann, of CEWEP, said: “Recycling is not an end in itself, but must fulfil a useful purpose on the market.”
“At the end of the service life of polyurethanes, there are different waste management options which need to be balanced in each case, to find out the best ecological and economic solution,” said Grunert
“In the future, post-consumer scrap and mattresses recycling will be important but it’s not an easy conundrum to solve,” said Ten Brink.
Ten Brink explained how his company is involved: “Today, FoamPartner is involved in mechanical recycling and foam rebonding as its primary recycling processes. In the future, this may be complemented by chemical recycling such as acidolysis,” he said,
FoamPartner is currently involved in waste reduction in the foaming process and in the future this will be complemented by supporting development programmes for sustainable polyols,” added Ten Brink.
In terms of resource efficiency, FoamPartner believes combustion technology can be used for flexible foam incineration with energy recovery.
In the future, the company aims to develop products that will “save energy and filter air and water as part of its enhanced development process,” said Ten Brink.
Processing polyurethane at the end of life of components must make financial as well as ecological sense, the panel agreed.
“Sustainability means more than recycling materials at all costs,” said Grunert. He added: “It is important to understand the energy, economic and social costs of sustainability at all stages of the circular economy.”
“To be truly sustainable,” he argued, “the whole process should allow all of the participants to at least break even or make a profit for reinvestment. This is not perpetual motion, it is ensuring that the true costs of production, ownership and reuse are correctly reflected.”
Kleppmann said: “Polyurethane foam can contribute to the generation of energy and generating energy from some polyurethane waste could improve the quality of polyurethane recyclate.”
Waste to Energy helps reach the targets set in the EU Landfill Directive that aim to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste being landfilled, added Kleppmann,
According to Eurostat, said Kleppmann, more than 82m/T of municipal solid waste (MSW) (34% of MSW treated in EU28) was sent to landfills in 2012. To minimise the amount of waste landfilled, waste to energy (WtE) and recycling work as complementary treatment methods.
“In fact, those member states that have practically eliminated landfilling (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden) achieved this by introducing landfill bans. At the same time, they have high recycling rates,” he stated.
Kleppmann also said: “The remaining waste that cannot be recycled in a sustainable or economically viable way is turned into energy and contributes to the security of energy supply by making affordable, reliable and secure energy [available],”
“WtE helps quality recycling “as it takes the waste that is not good enough for quality recycling and reduces the volume of pollutants to enter the value chain,” Kleppmann added.
What does recycling mean?
However, Kleppmann warned that it can be unclear what is meant by recycling. Because of this, he said, there is no good data on what goes into a recycling plant and what goes out to non-EU countries, and what is finally replacing virgin materials on the markets.
“To measure recycling efforts properly we need to harmonise monitoring and there are currently four different options of how to do this within the EU-28,” he added.