By Dr Sam Hill, Technical and Flooring Innovation Manager

All products and services have an impact on the planet and at The Vita Group, we are determined to fully understand the impact of our products, so we can continue to explore ways to reduce it.

To do this we have been working with external experts in life cycle analysis (LCA) to build a science-based, LCA model to inform and drive forward our sustainability plans.

Our LCA tool shows the environmental impact of our products from raw material extraction through to The Vita Group’s factory gate. This data will inform new product developments and provide our customers full transparency on the environmental impact of our products to assist them in achieving their own sustainability targets.

But before we explore our findings and future implications, we should start from the beginning.

What is Life Cycle Analysis?

Life Cycle Analysis is a process that allows us to understand the environmental impact products and processes have. By accounting for all impacts, from the extraction of raw materials, the impact of manufacturing, transportation, and even disposal, the overall impact of your business activities can be understood. It is the only way to validate your drive to net-zero, because it is a standardised and scientific approach, which third-party experts externally verify.

Five lessons we learnt from LCA:

  • It’s time to rethink plastics
    Unfortunately, it is a commonly held belief that all plastics are bad for the environment, but our analysis reiterates that this is not necessarily the case. Our data suggests that flexible PU foam has a lower carbon impact than some other competing materials, including steel wire, natural materials (wool and silk), and some other polymers (e.g. polyester and polypropylene). It is important to think about all the processes required to convert a material into a usable component for use. For example, a natural material such as wool undergoes washing and other textile processes (scouring, carding, dying etc) before it is ready for us to use.
  • It’s not just about carbon emissions!
    When considering environmental emissions, it is crucial to look beyond just “carbon dioxide emissions” (equivalent emissions often represented as CO2e). There are many impact categories that need to be considered for a comprehensive understanding of the environmental overall impact of our products, including ozone depletion, water usage and eutrophication. Focusing solely on reducing impact in one category may lead to unintended consequences in other areas. That’s why Vita has chosen to collect data on nine impact categories (where available), ensuring a balanced view and enabling well-informed decision-making. By considering a broader range of impacts, we can work towards creating sustainable solutions that address multiple environmental concerns.
  • Geography can make a world of difference
    With bio-materials, such as vegetable oils, geographical differences can significantly affect the environmental impact of the materials. For example, deforestation, the clearing of rainforest in order to farm crops for bio-materials has an impact on the earth’s ability to absorb CO2, biodiversity and the quality of life for locals where flooding can be a consequence.
  • Focus on the full picture
    It’s essential to consider many impact categories to discover the full picture of the impacts of your business operations. We uncovered that Scope 3 emissions, primarily from services and purchased materials, account for over 95% of our emissions. Conducting thorough Life Cycle Analyses has strengthened our relationships with suppliers, as we seek accurate information encourage better decision-making and pursue alternative materials. Our LCA process has facilitated discussions with bio-material producers and the development of new recycling routes, enabling us to understand the origins and impacts of specific materials. As a result, we act as intermediaries between customers and suppliers, assisting customers in meeting sustainability demands by leveraging our suppliers’ products.
  • Closing the knowledge gap
    There is still a shortage of primary data for products in our industry. Our raw material providers are generating ever more data on the impact of their products, but many finished products don’t have clear or thorough data, so a lot of information is still being generalised. We need to start replacing these general ‘industrial averages’ with real, validated data wherever possible. This will allow us to obtain clear information to create ‘like for like’ comparisons.

Using our LCA to drive circularity:

Our industry partnerships have already led us to create Europe’s first flexible polyurethane (PU) foam made with recycled raw materials – Orbis™. This revolutionary innovation means we can prevent post-consumer products, such as mattresses, from going to landfills or being incinerated, therefore creating a fully circular product.

We are already producing Orbis™ foam made with Dow’s RENUVA™ polyols at our ICOA facility in Crancey, France. The RENUVA™ Mattress Recycling Program aims to recycle up to 200,000 mattresses a year.

Dow has provided us with the environmental impact data of this polyol which has allowed us to accurately compare the Orbis™ foams to other materials and demonstrate the improved sustainability of the grade. We can demonstrate the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions with our cradle-to-gate analysis for the product, which helps customers to make more informed decisions.

Following the successful launch of Orbis, we are expanding our focus to include the development of specialised materials for automotive and industrial users. As a result, we have been investing in enhancing our technical expertise to incorporate alternative materials into these products for our clients.

Our current projects involve the production of technical materials for aviation, mass transport seating and high-end car interior products.

Looking to the future:

Net zero as an industry won’t happen unless we all make it happen. It can only be achieved if we work together and companies continue advancing their own products’ life cycle analysis and make the data accessible, so we can make more informed decisions going forward.

If you are interested in understanding the true environmental impact of your products, the first step is to engage with a reliable and knowledgeable partner who can foster open collaboration across all products and processes.

Always avoid making assumptions about the outcome and embrace the uncertainty of the results. By being open and from collaboration, you will gain invaluable insights into your own sustainability practices and those of your partners – and they might not be the results you predicted!

Posted 15th February 2024

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