Flexible Polyurethane Foam And The Environment

Through ongoing efforts, the flexible polyurethane foam (FPF) industry is elevating the sustainability of its products and manufacturing processes. Today, FPF is one of the most environmentally benign and versatile materials in widespread use. PFA uses its communications programs to give end product manufacturers, designers, architects, and consumers a better understanding of the product’s environmental qualities and advantages.

FPF Industry Milestones in Sustainability And Environmental Progress

  • Compliance with all federal and state emission standards and the Clean Air Act.
  • NESHAP Compliance Ahead of Schedule. The FPF industry pioneered solutions for reducing emissions of the raw material methylene chloride to meet the EPA’s National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) regulations.
  • Elimination of the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from FPF manufacturing processes.
  • Voluntary Phaseout of PBDEs: In January 2005, PFA manufacturer members voluntarily phased out the use of pentaBDE flame retardants in the manufacture of FPF for use in home furnishings cushioning applications. (Process required nearly two years of conversion work.)
  • Improved adhesives. Today’s are typically either water-based or utilize non-hazardous solvents. Some adhesive formulations, such as hot melt systems, are 100% solids and require no carrier at all.
  • Continued research and development of sustainable chemistry, such as soy-based polyols.

A Platform on Sustainability

To help PFA members’ be responsible stewards of the environment, PFA has identified eight principles of sustainability as the basis of the Polyurethane Foam Association Platform on Sustainability.

  1. Reduce solid waste.

     FPF products are recyclable. The FPF industry scrap collection and reuse system has developed into one of the most successful examples of recycling in the world. In the United States, nearly all manufacturing scrap is collected and recycled. Each year hundreds of millions of pounds of post-consumer waste FPF are diverted from landfills and recycled as bonded carpet cushion. PFA encourages members to improve the efficiency and widen the scope of post-consumer recycling efforts. 

  2. Share scientific research about environmentally friendly materials and renewable feedstocks.
    PFA organizes technical programs twice a year as forums for relevant research and product innovations. Bio-based raw materials now used within the FPF industry were introduced at PFA technical programs.
  3. Support energy saving technologies.

    FPF manufacturing technology is an example of energy-efficient production. Through the use of an exothermic reaction, FPF is manufactured with little demand for energy or water. PFA manufacturing members also conserve transportation fuels by utilizing over-the-road trailer and container compression techniques to increase capacity.

  4. Support of the CertiPUR-US program.

    Voluntary third-party analysis and evaluation of FPF products promote a high level of product safety for workers and the consuming public. An industry-accepted labeling program enables end-product manufacturers, retailers and consumers to distinguish between FPF products that comply and those that do not.

  5. Encourage sustainability through enhanced useful life.

    Support programs that help reduce raw material consumption and waste generation by increasing usable product life and, therefore, improve sustainability.

  6. Develop programs to support member involvement in sustainability issues.

    Encourage use of PFA’s “Community First” program to help manufacturing members share their commitment to environmental stewardship and manufacturing safety, and also engage their employees in this commitment.

  7. Consider human rights issues.

    Before supporting or adopting new manufacturing practices, consider the impact on human rights issues such as exploitation of workers and child labor.

  8. Maintain continuous dialogue with leaders in sustainability.

    An effective sustainability program cannot be developed in a vacuum. PFA encourages input from NGOs, academia, customers and others involved in the implementation of sustainability initiatives throughout the year and especially at our technical programs.

FPF And Manufacturing Emissions
The manufacture of FPF involves the use of various chemical raw materials. Isocyanates are an essential for the building for the manufacture of FPF. In their raw material state, isocyanates present a potential respiratory health hazard, but during the manufacture of FPF, any isocyanates are reacted out and do not present a hazard or risk in facility emissions or end products.

One commonly used isocyanate, Toluene Diisocyanate (TDI) has been the subject of a number of peer-reviewed and government studies of the respiratory health of consumers, FPF workers and persons living near manufacturing sites where TDI is used.

In May of 2010, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) released the results of a long-term study concerning the respiratory health of people living near foam manufacturing plants that use TDI.

The NC DHHS study, which was conducted over seven years with funding from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), included air monitoring and sampling, collection and examination of blood samples and respiratory health interviews. After taking 80 different air quality samples, NC DHHS found traces of TDI in only one sample. The level was 1 part per trillion, a value significantly below levels of health concern.

Blood analysis of 350 different samples found only one positive indication of possible TDI exposure and the individual who tested positive reported a non-work-related use of a sealant that may have contained a TDI component.

Respiratory health interviews similarly did not indicate any unusual patterns in community health. Independent third-party air monitoring around foam manufacturing plants in North Carolina found no detectable emissions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted air sampling in 2009 specifically looking for TDI near seven schools located near factories (not foam manufacturers) that reported large amounts of TDI emissions. The EPA did not detect any TDI concentrations.

Industrial Scrap Recycling

Recycled content and recyclability are two factors consistently identified with sustainable products. Flexible polyurethane foam (FPF) products are highly recyclable. In fact, the FPF industry has one of the most successful recycling records in the world.

In the United States, nearly all manufacturing scrap is collected and recycled. According to an estimate by the Carpet Cushion Council, approximately 1.2 billion pounds of combined post-industrial and post-consumer foam scrap is diverted annually from landfills to the manufacture of carpet cushion.

As pioneers in recycling programs, FPF manufacturers first attacked the challenge of FPF waste by using more efficient manufacturing processes to minimize the amount of process scrap, then developed a program to commercialize systems for recovering and recycling scrap generated in downstream product applications, and finally addressed post-consumer waste at end-of-life.

Today, FPF scrap provides needed raw materials and also generates additional revenue sources. With the development of practical end-uses for scrap flexible polyurethane foam, almost every piece of process scrap is potentially recyclable.

Bonded Polyurethane Carpet Cushion

Instead of being routed into landfills, FPF scrap and recovered materials are easily recycled into useful consumer products such as bonded carpet cushion (sometimes called “rebond”), which accounts for approximately 85% of all  carpet cushion products sold in the U.S.

Bonded polyurethane foam carpet cushion boasts both recycle content and recyclability. Scrap collectors and processors can be found in most major metropolitan areas.

With a typical recycled content of around 90%, bonded polyurethane carpet cushion primarily uses scrap foam generated from various manufacturing processes and recovered post consumer waste from the “take up” of old product, including mattresses and carpet cushion.

In addition to its recycling advantages, bonded polyurethane carpet cushion contributes to the sustainability equation by extending the lifecycle of carpet.

Post Consumer Recycling

Post consumer recycling of FPF from home furnishings and mattresses is receiving attention from both governmental and non-government environmental groups. There are preliminary programs for mattress recycling in some states. The scale of this challenge is massive; there are literally millions of pieces of furniture that go into landfills, and because construction varies greatly, there are no standardized systems for breaking down home furnishings into individual components. PFA and the FPF industry are working closely with a number of groups to study and better understand this challenge.

Another element in the challenge is the presence of flame retardants (FRs) in many furniture pieces. One opportunity for FPF recycling is that by blending recycled foam containing FRs with other foam scrap, concentrations of FRs are significantly diminished, and the recycled foam can be used productively, rather than being discarded.

PFA, along with the Carpet Cushion Council, participated in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored workshop, “Management of Waste Foams and Plastics Mixed with Flame Retardants.” At NSF’s request, PFA worked with the Carpet Cushion Council on a peer-reviewed publication in a science journal documenting the benefits of mechanical recycling of FPF into carpet cushion.

Sustainable Raw Materials

 In the last decade, suppliers to the FPF industry pioneered bio-content raw materials, and the industry has embraced these. Polyols derived from renewable plants such as soy and castor beans yield foams with property improvements, including better resistance to yellowing and slightly better mechanical properties such as support factor and dynamic flex fatigue.  Although technology does not currently allow for flexible polyurethane foam with entirely renewable content, promising research continues.




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