A significant recycling stream is emerging for what would seem like an unlikely candidate—thermoset polyurethane foam.
Producers of thermosets have long trumpeted the materials’ recyclability, but the actual recycling of post-consumer thermosets has been insignificant because they cannot be remelted and re-used.
Various states and local communities are now offering financial incentives to encourage, and even require, the recycling of mattresses, which are not accepted by commercial recycling companies and are not wanted in landfills because they take up so much space and do not degrade.
On May 1, Connecticut became the first state to mandate mattress recycling. A $9 fee is imposed on all new mattress sales to support the cost. California and Rhode Island also passed mattress recycling laws, prompting the International Sleep Products Association to form the Mattress Recycling Council to develop recycling programs.
About 25 million mattresses and box springs are manufactured each year, with about one-quarter that amount going into the trash. That’s an estimated 250 million pounds of foam that is either incinerated, landfilled, or thrown by the side of the road.
A company called Nationwide Mattress Recycling, Framingham, Massachusetts, is now in the business of recycling mattresses. There are many mom-and-pop operations across the country, often using hard-to-hire workers for the difficult tasks of dismantling mattresses and box springs into recyclable components.
One obvious use of recycled polyurethane foam is shredded rebond used in carpet underlayment. Most of the “feedstock” now comes from manufacturing scrap. According to the American Chemistry Council, nearly a billion pounds of reclaimed polyurethane scrap was used in 2010 to create rebond cushioning.
In another mechanical process called powdering, polyurethane parts are ground into a fine powder that is mixed with virgin materials to create new polyurethane foam or reaction injection molded (RIM) parts.
There are also four types of chemical processes to recover polyurethane foam: glycolysis, hydrolysis, pyrolysis, hydrogenation. The economics of those processes are not clear.
One of the great outcomes is that as scale develops, it may also become economical to recycle polyurethane foam from car seats and a myriad of other applications.
The ACC reports that a manufacturer in Michigan already provides polyols with up to 70 percent recycled content for the automotive industry.