“They Are Recyclables, Not Waste” – Recycling of Rigid Polyurethane Foams
Circular Economy is teamwork. Everyone can contribute, and every single step counts. Covestro is making its contribution – together with other partners such as Circularise – with the Circular Foam research project. This is about recycling rigid polyurethane foams that are used in the insulation of buildings or refrigeration appliances.
In an interview with K-MAG, Dorota Pawlucka talks about the need for such a project, why rigid polyurethane foams are so difficult to recycle, and why she believes a completely closed-loop recycling system is possible.
Ms Pawlucka, what is behind the Circular Foam project?
Dorota Pawlucka: The overall aim of the project is to strengthen sustainable business, especially the Circular Economy. We are concerned with developing old materials as an alternative resource. Our focus is on rigid polyurethane foams, which are used for example in refrigerators and freezers or as insulating materials in house construction.
With the help of chemical processes, we want to recover carbon from the foams and use it as a raw material for new materials. In addition to chemical technology, we are also looking at waste streams. This gives us access to the recyclable materials. I want to emphasise, they are recyclables, not waste. They are alternative resources.
To what extent did you see the need for such a project?
Pawlucka: The need is based on three major challenges that our planet is currently facing: climate change, finite resources or fossil raw materials and increasing amounts of waste.
Plastics play a major role in this context. For example, we can save energy with insulation materials, and we can produce and transmit renewable energies thanks to them. These are just two examples of many that show that we cannot imagine life without plastics.
And how do plastics now help us to become less dependent on fossil raw materials and solve the waste problem?
Pawlucka: The problem is that the resources on which plastics are based are finite and only about 14 percent of all plastics are recycled. Yet plastics themselves are an alternative resource at the end of their product life. So if we manage to recycle and use them, we can become less dependent on fossil raw materials and also reduce the amount of waste.
You have already mentioned that currently very little is recycled. This is especially true for rigid polyurethane foams. Why is that the case?
Pawlucka: The difficulty is that rigid foams based on polyurethanes cannot simply be melted down like many other plastics. Since they are not composites, it is relatively easy to separate them from different products, but chemical processes are needed to break down the rigid foams molecularly.
These chemical processes are currently under development, but the research effort here is still enormous.
How do you meet these chemical challenges?
Pawlucka: At Covestro we rely on a triad: chemolysis, smart pyrolysis and enzymatic recycling are the three different technologies of our choice to be able to integrate waste streams into the cycle. In the circular foam project, we focus on chemolysis and smart pyrolysis. The advantage of such chemical processes is that we can produce equivalent materials. So we have no loss of quality.
Is a completely closed cycle of recyclable materials even possible?
Pawlucka: We have to believe in it, and we firmly do. We are moving more and more in the direction of the Circular Economy, but it takes time. After all, we as a society have been operating in a linear fashion for almost 180 years. This contrasts with our goal of being climate-neutral in the EU in 2050.
There are countless recyclable materials for which cycles must be closed. Mechanical recycling is already in use for some and works. Chemical processes are still under development. But the cycle also includes the use of all alternative raw materials, for example biomass.
All in all, Circular Economy covers an incredibly large spectrum that needs to be tapped. At circular foam, we are working with our 22 partners on a solution for rigid foams and developing a holistic approach. In parallel to the technology development, we are also doing regional work, preparing the implementation of the recycling processes on the ground. Every single contribution is important to move closer to the goal of a sustainable economy and with circular foam we are making our small contribution.
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