In addition to the well-established rebonded foam technologies, Vita Group is working with a number of other companies on newer approaches to the circular economy, and is keen to prove the green claims and credentials of its approach. The company has submitted its targets to SBTI, the Science Based Targets Initiative, which validates them. The initiative currently includes more than 2500 companies across a range of industrial sectors, including Rolls-Royce, Johnson Matthey, Victrex, Coca-Cola, and Pfizer.
‘We’re the only PU foam manufacturer that has submitted its targets to SBTI, and this is seen as the gold standard,’ Evans said. ‘We believe in our story. We’re going to be independently validated; we’re not just going to write something on our website. We used an external company to benchmark current performance and measure all of our Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.’ Scope 1 emissions are those created by Vita in the course of its activities; Scope 2 are indirect emissions from electricity, heating, cooling and steam; and Scope 3 are emissions from making raw materials and other consumables.
‘We could take the easy route and buy carbon offsets,’ Evans said. ‘Today it would cost €4.5m for us to achieve carbon neutrality that way. But the price of credits is likely to increase significantly, and by 2030 we may need to find €15m to get out of bed in the morning. We’ve now got a clear road map to reduce our impact. We’re very proud that from 1 July 2022 all 37 of our sites are going to use renewable energy. That means that all of our Scope 2 emissions will be zero.’
By 2030, the company pledges to reduce its Scope 1 emissions by 46%. It expects to purchase all of its electricity from sustainable sources this summer, eliminating its Scope 2 emissions in the summer. It wants to cut Scope 3 CO₂ emissions for by 13% from its 2019 baseline by 2030.
Vita Group estimates that in this way it will be able to significantly reduce the global warming impact of its processes so they come very close to international goals. ‘We have set a target of 1.5°C for Scope 1 and 2 because those are in our control,’ he said. ‘Scope 3 is outside our direct control, but we are working with our suppliers to achieve the 2°C target.’ The company outsourced 70% of its fleet of trucks in October 2020. However, Evans said, this was not done simply to move emissions from Scope 2 to Scope 3: outsourcing helped significantly reduce the emissions associated with its products.
‘The business is with a committed transport company that provides us with six full-time drivers,’ he said. ‘Our supplier has optimised the network of deliveries and pickups. For example, before outsourcing, if we had a customer in Plymouth 250 miles (400km) away, we would send a load, and the lorry would return empty. Now, the transport company can pick up other loads and bring them back northwards as the driver returns to depot. It is more efficient and reduces the CO₂ impact of the delivery and an empty return to base here.’
Vita Group is trying to balance the need to be carbon neutral with the costs of doing that and is working with suppliers to build the market for sustainable raw materials. ‘We are bringing the supply base with us on our journey into sustainability,’ Evans said. ‘The CO₂ reductions do have a cost impact, and the new products, which require significant investments, will be sold as premium ranges.’ But, he said, they remain commercially focused, and the aim is still to provide what customers want at the right price point.
Up the raw materials chain, companies are reducing the carbon intensity of their products. The upstream players are taking this seriously. Shell, for example, announced last year it will be taking renewable feedstocks and use them in crackers alongside traditional petrochemical starting materials. It will still use all its existing production processes, so the outputs remain of the same standard, regardless of whether they came from petrochemical or renewable sources.
This makes a mass-balance approach work, and thus it will be possible to certificate the amount of renewable or closed circle content that went into the PU raw materials. This certification can then be passed on down the supply chain to the consumer, and, eventually, close the loop back to the recycling plant. As an example, Covestro recently announced it had supplied mass-balance certificated raw materials to Sinomax (see page 11).
Evans outlined some of the current circular or bio-based alternative feedstocks that Vita Group has considered. One approach that several raw materials suppliers are studying is green benzene derived from biogas and biomass, as well as recycled plastics. ‘We have some tankers of TDI scheduled for delivery later this year,’ he said. ‘That will be about 1.5kT of TDI made from green benzene.’
Polyether polyols from soya, which Vita said does not affect the food chain, are sourced from suppliers such as Cargill and many others. These are also part of Vita’s development programmes.
Evonik announced it was working with Vita Group to progress its proprietary hydrolysis approach to flexible foam recycling in November 2021. ‘This generates polyether polyols, and we will take samples for evaluation,’ he said. ‘They can also produce TDA, the pre-cursor for TDI. The Evonik solution is like chemically unzipping consumer products.’
Vita Group is also working with a number of other partners, each of which have their own approach to the circular economy. ‘They’re all slightly different answers to different problems,’ Evans said. ‘We have four innovation centres across the group. We have a formulation centre in Lithuania, a bedding development centre in Middleton, UK, a pilot plant and development centre in Accrington, UK, and a flooring development centre at Ball & Young in Corby, UK. We have the capacity to evaluate these materials.’
Technical director Murray added that the necessary scale is there. ‘We have an innovation centre based on formulation chemistry, with a pilot plant so we can understand what the materials can do, how far we can push the boundaries in terms of formulation and processing characteristics,’ he said. ‘We have application centres for bedding, where we can show customers how to make good green products and how to make them more recyclable at end of life while they retain the properties that consumers want.’
Murray is casting the net more widely, too. ‘We are working with our supply chain partners, but also with academics,’ he said. ‘We need to bring all the knowledge and expertise to bear on these problems. We can’t do it on our own; it needs partnerships. This means we have a toolbox of different options to provide a solution. It’s like climbing a mountain: you can take different routes to the summit.’
Evans added that they are bringing the supply base with them on the journey into sustainability. ‘The CO₂ reductions do have a cost impact, and the new products, which require significant investments, will be sold as premium ranges,’ he said.
In the longer term, Evans believes that the preferred way to deal with all forms of flexible polyurethane foam waste will be via cracking. ‘Supply chains have to be set up, probably on a country-by-country basis,’ he said. ‘But in the long term, because this can produce identical raw materials to those already made from oil, it will be the way to go. We think that biopolyols may become less attractive over time, because they are being aimed at aviation, which will change the price point.’ But in the meantime, Vita Group is backing all the horses that it can see.