The issue of sustainable manufacturing has never been more relevant than it is today. Months of national lockdowns and shifting government restrictions have naturally ignited conversations about recovery, and the need to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic into a greener, and cleaner world.
In all this change, consumer outlook has also expanded towards the circular economy. For over 50 years, pre-consumer foam trim has been recycled or rebonded into material suitable for a range of products such as underlays for flooring. Trim is created as part of the cutting or conversion process when making consumer goods such as mattresses and furniture; it is collected and processed to create new materials, often with superior performance.
At The Vita Group, we are proud of our market-leading sustainable innovations. For over 70 years we have been developing flexible PU foam and in 2000, we were the first in Europe to introduce foams with bio-polyol content like soy bean and castor oils.
The circular economy is integral to our culture, purpose, and values. Earlier this year, we launched a bold new strategy laying down our aspirations for our product portfolio, which include aiming for half of our product range to have a sustainably-sourced option by 2030, and we intend to further accelerate our commitment to both sustainability and innovation.
Our latest sustainable foam is Orbis. This product has been created through collaborating with Dow on their ground-breaking RENUVA™ Mattress Recycling Program, allowing us to manufacture high quality PU foam using Polyol created from recycled mattress content.
The recycled PU foam mattresses are processed using Dow’s in-house technology converting the foam back into a base raw material, which we use to make brand new foam for many applications including mattresses.
Mark Lewis, Operations and Projects Director at The Vita Group, was recently a guest panellist on a webinar hosted by Dow to discuss the topic of foam recycling in relation to the RENUVA™ raw material and its use in the manufacture of sustainable polyurethanes. From Mark’s perspective, the progress in public attitudes is encouraging. “The roll-out for the RENUVA™ products will be determined by customer petition,” he said. “Now we have the demand, we will be able to transfer that technology to any of our ten sites around Europe.”
But what more can be done to educate the market about mattress recycling? As Mark noted, the majority of the work has so far been done by activists and media campaigning. “We are all aware of the fact that we buy food in supermarkets packaged in recycled plastics,” he said, “and there are clothing brands that advertise products based on the fact they have recycled content. People’s attitudes have changed significantly and we’re hearing a lot more people asking what they can do with an old mattress. Consumer buy-in very shortly won’t be the issue.”
Movements such as the banning of single-use plastic are a step forward, but innovations will always be led by the innovator. Consumer expectation provides a strong foundation for product designers and investors to work from. Our role as a manufacturer is to respond to the new interest in green manufacturing by showcasing our product development and sharing information about the technical properties.
A supply chain is only as green as its weakest link, and vendors also have an important role to play in helping to drive innovation forward. Buyers should be searching out for the progressive companies in the industry and asking questions about everything from their clean energy use, to recycling and waste management programmes. Given, the number of eco-friendly trade regulations ever increasing, there is an imperative to do so.
There has already been strong interest from customers across Europe for Orbis foam and interest in the RENUVA™ technology, providing exciting opportunities for our product lines. But this is just one example of a programme we are using to support the circular economy. Our ESG report outlines our aim to use 100% renewable electricity across all Vita plants by 2030; and a target of zero manufacturing waste taken to landfill after 2040, which we have already achieved across two of our largest sites at Middleton and Accrington in the UK.
The past year has shown that attitudes towards bio-polyols and recycled foam products are changing. The consumer is more educated than ever about environmentally friendly design, and the demand is there to stimulate the market. By engaging with our supply chain and innovating our product lines, we hope to encourage a diverse array of sustainable options and move away from linear operation models towards a circular economy.
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