share

Polyurethane Recycling


Polyurethane Recycling Processes
Key Opportunities to Expand Polyurethane Recycling and Recovery
For the Consumer
Recycled Plastics and Polyurethane Database
Resources and Links

Demand from businesses and consumers for recyclable products is high. Helping recycle materials that would otherwise become waste is one way many companies and individuals are choosing to reduce their environmental footprint.

Like other plastics, many polyurethane products can be recycled in various ways to remove them from the waste stream and to recapture the value inherent in the material. Most consumers are familiar with recycling plastic bottles and containers at curbside. Polyurethane recycling, on the other hand, usually happens elsewhere—on job sites, in industrial settings, during building demolition—and takes many forms, from relatively simple reuse to breaking down the material into its chemical constituents.

Here are a few examples of the different types of polyurethane recycling:

  • Rebond—Nearly a billion pounds of reclaimed polyurethane scrap was used in 2010 to create rebond cushioning used as carpet underlay.

  • Mattresses—800 pounds of polyurethane foam is recovered each day from one mattress recycling facility in Alameda County, CA.

  • Recycled content raw materials—A manufacturer in Michigan provides raw materials for polyurethanes (polyols) with up to 70 percent recycled content that are used in the automotive industry.

Polyurethane Recycling Processes

Polyurethane is recycled in two primary ways: mechanical recycling, in which the material is reused in its polymer form, and chemical recycling that takes the material back to its various chemical constituents.

Mechanical Recycling

  • Rebonded Flexible Foam—Rebonded flexible foam or “rebond” is made with pieces of chopped flexible polyurethane foam and a binder to create carpet underlay, sports mats, cushioning and similar products. Rebond has been used for decades and represents nearly 90 percent of the carpet underlay market in the United States.

  • Regrind or Powdering—Sometimes called powdering, regrind recycling takes polyurethane industrial trim or post-consumer parts and grinds them in various ways to produce a fine powder. The resultant powder is mixed with virgin materials to create new polyurethane foam or reaction injection molded (RIM) parts.

  • Adhesive Pressing/Particle Bonding—These two recycling processes use polyurethane from various applications, such as automobile parts, refrigerators and industrial trim, to create boards and moldings, often with very high recycled content. Used polyurethane parts are granulated and blended either with a powerful binder or polyurethane systems, then formed into boards or moldings under heat and pressure. The resulting products, analogous to particleboard made from wood waste, are used in sound proofing applications, furniture that is virtually impervious to water and flooring where elasticity is needed.

  • Compression Molding—This recycling process grinds reaction injection molded (RIM) and reinforced RIM parts into fine particles and then applies high pressure and heat in a mold, creating products with up to 100 percent recycled content and material properties that can be superior to virgin materials. 

Chemical Recycling

  • Glycolysis—This process combines mixed industrial and post-consumer polyurethanes with diols at high heat, causing a chemical reaction that creates new polyols, a raw material used to make polyurethanes. These polyols can retain the properties and functionality of the original polyols and can be used in myriad applications.

  • Hydrolysis—This process creates a reaction between used polyurethanes and water, resulting in polyols and various intermediate chemicals. The polyols can be used as fuel and the intermediates as raw materials for polyurethane.

  • Pyrolysis—This process breaks down polyurethanes under an oxygen free environment to create gas and oils.

  • Hydrogenation—Similar to pyrolysis, hydrogenation creates gas and oil from used polyurethanes through a combination of heat and pressure and hydrogen.

Learn more about these and other processes to recycle or recover the inherent value in plastics.

« back to top

Key Opportunities to Expand Polyurethane Recycling and Recovery

Rebond

  • What is it?
    Pull back the carpeting in today’s modern homes and most likely rebond is providing the cushioning. Created from flexible polyurethane foam production scrap and post-consumer cushioning products, rebond is easy to identify. It is made up of various sizes and colors of chopped pieces of foam that are bound together in one slab.

  • Progress
    Annually, around 90 percent of the flooring underlay market is rebond. Today, the market for “virgin” flooring underlay made from polyurethane foam is actually quite small due to the improved value and increased sustainability of rebond.

  • Opportunities
    In addition to the residential market, rebond is making inroads in hotels, institutional, retail and even marine applications. The market for rebond continues to expand beyond carpet underlay: between five and ten percent in the United States and Canada today is used for acoustic insulation in automobiles, gym pads, prayer mats, pet beds and mattresses. 

Mattress Recycling

  • What Is It?
    The amount of polyurethane foam used to give mattresses their cushy comfort is estimated at 300 million pounds per year in the United States. While that may sound like a large number, Americans eat four times that amount in potato chips each year. Regardless, companies that make polyurethane foam have successfully helped launch endeavors to capture and recycle it.

    There are two primary methods to remove the polyurethane foam from mattresses—deconstruction by hand and shredding (and combinations of the two). Deconstruction by hand is more common; workers basically filet the mattress and remove the foam and other materials. This can produce up to 90 percent recyclable materials, but it is more labor intensive than shredding, which mechanically separates the foam and other materials and relies on less physical labor, but can result in fewer recyclable materials.

  • Progress
    The International Sleep Products Association (ISPA) lists more than 25 North American recycling sites, noting that most facilities accept mattresses from commercial interests (retailers, hotels, hospitals, etc.) and not directly from consumers.

    At the recycling facilities, workers form the foam into bales that are shipped primarily to thirty facilities across the country that make “rebond,” the predominate underlay used for carpeting and other flooring. The collected polyurethane foam is chopped and shredded into small pieces and then mixed with a binder under heat and pressure to form logs or blocks that then are peeled, sliced or diced like other polyurethane foam products.

  • Opportunities
    Mattress and polyurethane foam makers, along with recyclers, continue to seek new technologies to make mattress recycling more cost effective, while hoping to capture more used foam from more mattresses. The industry is pursuing new shredding technologies designed to increase the scope of mattress recycling as well as the yield of reclaimed polyurethane foam.

Glycolysis

  • What is it?
    This process combines mixed industrial and post-consumer polyurethanes with diols at high heat, causing a chemical reaction that creates new polyols, a raw material used to make polyurethanes. These polyols can retain the properties and functionality of the original polyols and be used in myriad applications.

  • Progress
    One company uses glycolysis and other processes to recycle flexible and rigid foams into a new aromatic polyether polyol. The company opened a manufacturing facility in Michigan that supplies polyols to the automotive and manufacturing industries. The company’s formulations include up to 70 percent recycled content.

  • Opportunities
    Now that the process to reformulate reclaimed polyurethanes to meet commercial specifications has been established, the prospects have increased for expanded use of glycolysis and other chemical recycling. Opportunity largely will be driven by demand for recycled content in consumer products such as automobiles, furniture, appliances, insulation and packaging.

Energy Recovery

  • What is it?
    Many communities across the United States capture the energy content of their garbage in waste-to-energy facilities, recovering enough energy to power homes in five states or the equivalent of 28.6 billion barrels of crude oil. Polyurethanes and other plastics help energy recovery technology work better. Because plastics have a higher energy value than most other components of municipal solid waste, they help to significantly increase the efficiency of the energy recovery process.

  • Progress
    As one example, an energy producing company conducted a trial that added polyurethane scrap and other alternative fuels to coal. The trial was part of a goal to identify fuels that reduce emissions, reduce costs and do not impair operations. The trial found that the facility could process more than 500 tons of scrap material per day, and the company estimates that for each ton of coal displaced by polyurethane scrap, there is a reduction of more than eight pounds of harmful sulfur dioxide emissions. 

  • Opportunities
    CPI helps identify facilities that have polyurethane scrap materials that can be used as an engineered fuel. CPI also participates with the broader plastics industry to promote increased energy recovery from polyurethanes and other plastics in municipal solid waste.

Learn more about plastics and energy recovery in the United States.

« back to top

For the Consumer

Consumers have a large impact on the success of recycling of any material. By actively collecting products for recycling—and by buying products that are recycled or made with recycled content—consumers help drive both supply and demand.

In some instances, consumers can make a direct choice to buy products made with recycled polyurethane. For example, when buying carpeting, consumers can specify rebond carpet underlay made with recycled polyurethane. A few other cushioning and packaging materials also use rebond, such as pet beds, prayer mats, gym pads, packaging, plush toys and so on—consumers can ask the manufacturer or look for a label to determine recycled content.

To encourage polyurethane recycling, consumers can seek out retailers and manufacturers that support recycling in one way or another. For example, consumers can ask mattress sellers about their involvement in collecting and recycling used mattresses. Many automobile makers use recycled content in parts such as seat cushions, carpet underlay and acoustic insulation—much of this information is available on their web sites or through the car dealers.

As new uses for recycled polyurethane arise, consumers can increase demand by simply looking or asking for products that contain recycled content.

« back to top

Recycled Plastics and Polyurethane Database

Moore Recycling, a recycling consultancy based in California, manages a list of contacts and companies that recycle polyurethane and other plastics in the United States and Canada. Interested parties can search by company name, zip code or state to match buyers and sellers of flexible and rigid polyurethanes. There are many buyers and sellers on the database: www.plasticsmarkets.org.

« back to top

Resources and Links

  • Carpet Cushion Council (CCC)
    As the industry resource for answers to carpet cushion-related questions, CCC educates carpet retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and cushion manufacturers about the benefits of carpet cushion.

  • European Diisocyanate & Polyol Producers Association (ISOPA)
    ISOPA represents the manufacturers in Europe of aromatic diisocyanates and polyols, the main raw materials for polyurethanes.

  • International Sleep Products Association (ISPA)
    ISPA is dedicated to protecting and enhancing the growth, profitability and stature of the mattress industry.

  • Polyurethane Foam Association (PFA)
    PFA is the trade association of U.S. flexible polyurethane foam (FPF) manufacturers and their suppliers. PFA is focused on the education of foam users and allied industries, addressing technology, safety and the responsible environmental and health record of FPF.

  • Plastics Markets Database
    This site's purpose is to connect suppliers and buyers of all types of scrap plastic, from bales to post consumer resin. It is supported by the plastics industry and intended for use by the recycling industry in the United States and Canada.

CPI invites companies with the capacity for polyurethane recycling and recovery to share their stories with us.

« back to top

From: 
Email:  
To: 
Email:  
Subject: 
Message: