By Mike Murray, Chief Technology Officer at The Vita Group.
Every year, the warnings around climate change become starker and more extreme, with the record temperatures and droughts across Europe this summer being a perfect illustration of the concern.
Mercury hitting previously unseen levels isn’t the only clear example of the climate emergency. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) annually gauges climate change against several key tests. They recently found that the ocean is hotter, higher and more acidic than it has ever been. The WMO also reported that greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations had reached new global peaks year on year since 2020.
Reversing the trends here requires cultural change, difficult decisions need to be made, and every business sector needs to rethink what it is doing and how it can change.
In 2015 the Paris Climate Accord entered into force. The Accord includes the benchmark of limiting global temperature increases to just 1.5°C. This is a clear target that industries can work towards.
PU foam’s green credentials
The flexible PU foam industry has its part to play in minimising its impact on the environment. PU foam is highly applicable to a wide range of applications – and can be manufactured, processed and recycled sustainably.
The green benefits of flexible PU foam should not be overlooked. For example, its light and flexible nature mean it is quick and easy to transport, minimising the emissions incurred during transportation. PU foam’s versatility also means that just one production process can be employed for multiple purposes, while its durability reduces the need for additional manufacturing.
On top of all this, it is much easier to recycle en-masse than alternatives like wool, hemp, feathers and horse hair, which means that internal and external circular economies can be achieved.
Circling the issue
A circular economy is one in which no material is wasted at any point, as it is recovered and fed back into the production and consumption cycle.
Getting to this point will require several vital investments, particularly in how we repurpose ‘end of life’ materials – a central focus at Vita, where we have been at the vanguard of re-using trim materials to avoid them being sent to landfills. We have also turned our own and our customers’ trim and by-products into new goods. In fact, in 2021 alone, over 30,000 tonnes of material were repurposed instead of being sent to a landfill.
Our work on advancing the sector’s circularity has also seen us give the existing foam a new lease of life by turning it into underlay flooring solutions through our flooring division and into Shockpad underlay for artificial sports pitches via our Revosport team. We’ve even explored how to recycle PU foam into hydroponic green roof materials, a great example of how it’s possible to develop new applications for rebonded materials.
To take this to the next level, we have embarked on a series of partnerships to convert end-of-life PU foam into new raw materials. This has allowed us to introduce the Orbis™ range of flexible polyurethane foam, made using the repolyols such as RENUVA™ polyol created from raw materials extracted from recycled mattress content.
Thanks to these natural environmental advantages and the creative ways in which we know, we can push the sustainable envelope, it’s highly apparent that PU foam is a true enabler of a net zero economy.
The importance of innovative thinking
However, we know that there isn’t just one “silver bullet” solution to achieving a lower carbon economy. Instead, it will require multiple technologies, ideas, processes and partnerships working in combination to help us strive toward GHG neutrality and assist us in operating in a circular environment.
This is why investing in innovation is so important. It’s about taking the next steps on the R&D journey and challenging received wisdom with the right facilities and processes in place. To help the PU foam industry get to this point, we’ve opened not one, but four state-of-the-art innovation centres across Europe. We are committed to providing the supply chain with the sustainable options they need and reducing the industry’s dependence on environmentally harmful raw materials and processes.
Indeed, whenever we develop a new product, we build a sustainable element into its design. In practice, this has ranged from replacing petrochemically derived raw materials with sustainable bio-polyols, feeding end-of-life materials back into our processes, and reducing the weight of products to streamline logistics and make further emissions savings.
We constantly scan the horizon to help us stay ahead of the curve, both from a consumer and legislative perspective, so the industry isn’t left wanting green options when circumstances change. Our FRee range was developed in this way, as fire safety regulation updates were going to require new products in the market. FRee achieves the fire safety standards required by the more stringent UK and Irish regulations without compromising on technical performance or chemical safety. We didn’t wait for regulation changes but followed our values and led the market, creating what has proved to be a very popular product.
To judge the sustainable efficacy of our actions, it’s important to analyse everything we do through a green lens and set demanding objectives aiming to do all we can to meet the Paris Climate Accord’s target.
This has seen us commit to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), making us one of only 2,811 companies worldwide to have done so. In addition, we are one of just 1,391 businesses that have committed to the SBTi’s more exacting target of reductions that will help the world stay on the path to limiting temperature growth to 1.5°C.
We also keep a careful eye on the carbon emissions of our operations and have worked hard to reduce them as much as possible. Over 2019 – 21, we reduced Scope 1 emissions (which are direct emissions such as Vita’s fuel use) by 24% and in the same period, we cut our Scope 2 emissions (which are indirect emissions such as purchased electricity) to just 0.15 tonnes of CO2 from 13,450. Thanks to these results, we know that we’ve already achieved the SBTi’s target of reducing 46% of direct emissions by 2030. We’re also down to just 2.01% of waste going to landfill and 100% of our product developments now have a sustainable alternative built-in.
The sustainable road ahead
As already outlined, the need to change is clear, but there are many opportunities to think of new ideas and improve the sector’s operation. Relying on business as normal and waiting for legislation to drive change won’t be enough, but the PU foam industry is well placed to lead the advanced polymer composites market in the circular economy.
While material science innovation is vital in helping the industry meet its net zero targets, so is the importance of establishing key partnerships and extending sustainability throughout the sector. Moving forward, more infrastructure, cooperation, and agility will be required so the supply chain can operate at scale.
Each business also needs to closely consider a number of questions which go to the heart of their operations, such as:
Taking all of this into account will help the UK economy as a whole to understand the current sustainability landscape and set a robust journey for meeting our collective climate goals.
At Vita, we’re proving how the industry can take the lead. We’ve put ourselves in a great position to work with key suppliers to develop and commercialise the required technologies and prove their capabilities.
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