The cozy mattress, the comfortable sofa, the protective packaging or the ultra-light automotive lining: foams accompany us every day and make our lives comfortable and safe. But what happens to the products at the end of their life cycle? We at NEVEON are breaking new ground with a special continuous extrusion process.
At NEVEON, we produce polyurethane (PUR) flexible, composite and molded foams for a wide range of applications, from the comfort segment through the transportation sector to a limitless variety of specialty applications. In addition to sustainable product design and the reduction of emissions, we focus on circular economy. Until now, many PUR foam products have been thermally recycled at the end of their life cycle or, in the worst case, landfilled. Our technical team has been working on alternative recycling technologies for PUR foams for some time, with the aim of returning them to the materials loop.
Previous recycling processes still insufficient
According to a study by Labyrinth Research and Markets Ltd., around 40 million mattresses reach the end of their lives in the EU every year. Stacked on top of each other, this would result in a mattress pile 904 times as high as Mount Everest. When mattresses, or other PUR products such as upholstered furniture or automotive linings, have reached the end of their useful life, mixed waste is usually produced from PUR flexible foams, textiles and other materials. Current processes for recycling PUR foams, such as glycolysis or acidolysis, can only be used for a part of the waste, since a complex material separation of the end-of-life products into their individual components is necessary in order to keep the recyclable materials recovered in the process within predefined specification limits.
New continuous extrusion process as a potential game changer
We at NEVEON are not satisfied with the status quo and thus are working together with the Competence Center CHASE and the Transfercenter für Kunststofftechnik TCKT to develop new methods for recycling PUR waste that cannot be sorted. In a cooperative project funded by the FFG, we have been working since June 2021 on a new type of recycling process that can also be used to process mixed and contaminated foam waste. The core of this new process is a continuously running special extrusion of the PUR end-of-life products, whereby these are largely chemically degraded and the nitrogen-containing components are already separated in this step. At the same time, the previously very large volume of the PUR foam products is reduced by 90%. The pyrolysis oil produced in a downstream pyrolysis process can be fed back into the petrochemical cracking processes, and the pyrolysis coke can be used as a substitute for carbon black in industry, for example.
"Optimal end-of-life recycling of polyurethanes will require not one, but multiple solution paths. Especially for composite materials and heavily worn mattress and furniture waste, robust and cost-effective processes are needed that represent a significant improvement over thermal recycling. With our project work, we are making a significant contribution to the transition to a sustainable economy in which high-performance materials have a long service life and can be recycled at the end of their life cycle," Roland Krämer, Director Research & Development at NEVEON, is convinced.