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The Case For Chemically Recycling Polyurethane Foam

Since pu foam is generally made from non-renewable sources and doesn’t degrade in the environment, keeping it out of waste streams is a key issue.

It’s no secret that the renewable chemicals market is on the upswing. According to a report by Markets and Markets, the renewable chemicals market is projected to increase in terms of value from $49 billion in 2015 to $84.3 billion by 2020.

And Emery Oleochemicals is one of the many companies tapping into manufacturer’s desire to use chemicals that are both sustainable and rival petro-chemicals in performance.

Emery got its start 175 years ago by making candles and lamp oil from the meat industry’s discarded lard (check out the company’s nifty tribute to its storied history here). Now Emery offers a plethora of bio-based products for several industries. Headquartered in Malaysia with offices in USA (Cincinnati) and Europe (Loxstedt & Düsseldorf), Emery’s portfolio includes lubricants, additives and bio-based chemicals used in high-growth sectors such as home and personal care, construction, automotive, lubricants, packaging, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, textiles, electrical and electronics, and agriculture.

The company is also a leader in the emerging market for polyol made from scrap polyurethane foam and bio-based polyols, which is are used in mattresses, seat cushions and home insulation.

Since pu foam is generally made from non-renewable sources and doesn’t degrade in the environment, keeping it out of waste streams is a key issue. To meet this challenge, a variety of recycling options have been developed, including the use of scraps to make rebond material used in carpet underlay. In fact, according to the American Chemistry Council, nearly a billion pounds of the material were used for carpet underlay in 2010.

Emery, meanwhile, offers pu foam manufacturers a closed-loop recycling service that uses scraps to produce the company’s INFIGREEN polyols, which can be customized and then re-introduced into the pu foam process.

“Instead of companies having to take pu foam to a landfill, we can take their cuts and byproducts convert them back into polyols and they can feed it right back into their feed stream,” Jay Taylor, Emery’s Chief Manufacturing Officer and North America Regional Managing Director, told Chem.Info in a recent interview.

According to Emery, “This multi-award winning approach to recycling polyurethane foam is a first of its kind aromatic polyether/ester polyol and consists of a range of products manufactured via glycolysis.” 

The INFIGREEN process starts with polyurethane foam scrap. The scrap can be either rigid or flexible foams based on either ether or ester chemistry. The glycolysis product is further worked to remove any residual solids that may have been introduced into the foam scrap stream and the hydroxyl value is adjusted to meet an application specification. In the closed loop process, the foam producer’s scrap is converted back to polyol and returned for reprocessing into the foam manufacturing process.

The process can also translate into real cost savings for the company. While the numbers vary, Mark Kinkelaar, Emery’s Global Business Director-Eco-Friendly Polyols, says he’s seen companies save 10 to 20 percent using closed-loop recycling versus other methods of handling scrap.

And with regulation shifting towards mandating more pu foam recycling, Emery’s technology is likely to be in higher demand.

“Five states in the U.S. have signed a law or are evaluating laws that will mandating recycling or post-consumer pu foam waste on the marketplace,” Taylor said. “There is increasing pressure to find an outlet for foam. We are ideally positioned to bring this technology forward.”

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