Recycling Could Put the Spring Back into Old Mattresses

Covestro said it has made something of a breakthrough in its bid to improve the environmental credentials of polyurethane foam mattresses, a hold-out consumer product in the recycling revolution.

A number of PU makers have discovered how to recover the polyols, but Covestro’s lab technicians at a pilot plant in Leverkusen have gone one step further, according to Chief Executive Officer Marcus Steilemann. The German company’s chemical recycling process yields basic polyols, plus the precursors for toluene diisocyanate, one of the core ingredients.

It could be a step forward for the PU foam market, which has a more difficult route to sustainability than basic plastics like polyethylene that are more easily broken down.

“Closing the loop” has become a well-used phrase in the chemical industry. In most instances, it still reflects an ideal, a world where plastic makers recover their precious molecules from finished goods like car parts and soft furnishings in a never-ending cycle of production and recycling. But while consumers can throw a PET bottle in their green bin to get broken down into its constituent parts with relatively little fuss, a spent soft-foam mattress is an entirely different matter.

Covestro uses a chemical recycling process rather than a mechanical one to break PU down into its constituent parts. Scientists have recently proven the technique is scalable. Now comes the logistical challenge for the German company: getting its hands on the used material.

The owners of PU waste have been under increased pressure amid landfill phase out regulations. Fortunately for them, the cement industry was on hand to provide a willing dumping ground. The vast majority of old mattresses are currently burnt as an alternative fuel to heat kilns as cement makers look for ways to meet sustainability targets. That could all change if recycling gains traction and Covestro and peers want their molecules back.

Photo: Katie Dervin – If a Mattress Could Talk

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