Giving new life to old mattresses

11 Nov 2021
Eliminating Plastic Waste

In Europe around 30 million mattresses are discarded each year. Currently most of this bulky waste stream (~60%) ends up in landfills, the remainder being incinerated to produce heat and electricity. At present, waste-to-energy is the preferred technology for the treatment of end-of-life polyurethane (PU) foam. However, incineration is a source of CO2 and a waste of valuable resources. Recycling PU foams and building a recycling supply chain pose unique challenges. Today, markets for products from mechanical recycling have been developed but are of low value, and the market size is small and in decline. Therefore, alternative solutions for discarded mattresses – such as chemical recycling and consequently creating a market for recovered raw materials (polyols) with recycled content – needed to be developed. The award-winning RENUVA Mattress Recycling Program aims to reduce this mountain of waste by giving polyurethane (PU) foam from end-of-life mattresses a new life. The program will take discarded mattress foam and turn it back into raw material (polyols) through chemical recycling, the process of converting waste into feedstock. The new raw material will then be used in flexible or rigid foam products to go into applications such as building insulation boards and even new mattresses. While converting PU foams to polyols is not new, it has never been implemented for post-consumer waste due to new technology challenges and the complexity of collection and dismantling. At Dow, we believe our materials need to be as valuable at the end of their life as they are at the start, and we're addressing the challenge of discarded mattresses head-on. To tackle the problems of mattress waste, we needed to create a way to close the loop on the polyurethane foams they're made with. To drive significant market impact, Dow adopted a ‘collaboration approach' with industry partners across the value chain. From the cooperation in 2017 with equipment producer and processing specialist H&S Anlagentechnik, to selecting the plant operator – Orrion Chemicals Orgaform – in May 2020 in France, Dow has been actively seeking out key partnerships to pioneer a model of true circularity for recycled polyols. These efforts were further strengthened by Dow joining forces with French EPR (extended producer responsibility) firm, Eco-mobilier, for the supply of polyurethane foam from post-consumer mattresses to the recycling unit. In October 2020, Dow took one step further in this journey by announcing a collaboration with the Vita Group, Europe's leading flexible polyurethane foam solutions provider, to produce flexible polyurethane (PU) foams made with RENUVA polyols. And it is expected that before the Plastic Free World conference, more collaborations will be announced. The presentation will explain how Dow and its partners are making mattress recycling a reality. This is not a concept, idea or lab-scale operation. This is a reality. During the talk, we will offer a unique look into the plant construction in Semoy, France, which at capacity will recycle PU foam from up to 200,000 mattresses annually. Unlike the incineration process currently used, the RENUVA polyols produced from waste mattresses will have approximately 30% lower carbon footprint compared with a virgin polyol, according to a preliminary internal lifecycle assessment. As such, landfills are reduced, incineration avoided, the carbon footprint of the industry improved and business value generated. The plant construction is currently underway and is expected to be operational during the second half of 2021. We consider the RENUVA Mattress Recycling Program to be just the beginning. By demonstrating that polyurethanes can be recycled when the right ecosystem exists, we hope to stimulate the entire PU industry and create more demand for a process that could then be extended to other markets.