A second life for discarded hard foam

Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and partners investigate recycling opportunities

19 Apr 2022 16:05 | Faculty of Technology

From freezers to wall panels: polyurethane hard foam can be found in many products and objects. Though it is a valuable material with excellent insulating properties, it often ends up in the incinerator or in landfills. In the Circular Foam project (2022-2026) the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences investigates the opportunities for developing a recycling process in an international consortium. Senior Researcher David Lemiski reveals how.

Polyurethane (PU) hard foam is often used as an insulation material in refrigerators and freezers. It is also common in the building industry, where it is applied for insulation and integrated into backings on laminate flooring, ceiling panels and wall panels. ‘Recycling of this material can be very valuable, both from a sustainablity and a financial perspective. It can reduce waste and decrease the need for petroleum-based primary goods in manufacturing,’ stresses David Lemiski, Senior Researcher at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. A typical refrigerator has approximately 8 euros of value in its PU hard foam insulation. In Europe, in 2019 approximately 30 million refrigerators and freezers were discarded. ‘However, a process dedicated to recycling PU hard foam does not exist,’ says Lemiski.

First in the world

Circular Foam is the first in the world to investigate how to develop such a recycling process. It’s an exciting project, according to Lemiski: ‘We want to prove that a product that was not considered of value can be recycled and returned to the manufacturers to create the circular economy for PU hard foam. This will help reduce the need for primary sourced inputs, reduce waste, reduce the need for landfill, and so on. So there is a benefit to our society and the environment for future generations.’

For Lemiski, there is also a personal driver behind the work. ‘Before joining the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in October 2021, I worked for a major international petroleum producer. I feel that with this project I am helping to reduce at least one of the environmental impacts of the petroleum-based products in our lifes,’ he explains.

Three regions in Europe

The research takes place in three regions across Europe: the Rhineland in Germany, Silesia in Poland, and the Amsterdam region. In each of these areas, the consortium will investigate current recycling practices as well as infrastructural, logistical and regulatory issues. For example, can the PU be recovered to the specifications required, stored and transported to a central location for recycling it back to a molecular level? In addition to technical aspects, the consortium will also consider social aspects: how does industry look at current recycling practices and how can it increase awareness of the importance of recycling PU hard foams?

Creating a circular process

Circular Foam will deliver a small-scale (but scalable) demonstration plant to prove that recycling can be done in an efficient, economical, and environmentally safe way, and that the end product can re-enter the process as new input. In other words, it will show that the loop can be closed to create a circular process. ‘It will also involve a new approach to appliance recycling and to demolition in the housing/building sector to incorporate proper harvesting, transfer/storage, and movement of the PU foam,’ Lemiski adds.

In addition to processes and logistics, the project will create awareness, among governments and industry, of the importance of and the opportunities for recycling PU hard foam. The learnings from the three regions in the initial phase of the project will be used when the commercialization of the process is expanded to include other areas of Europe.

Partners

The Circular Foam consortium, initiated by PU hard foam producer Covestro, includes over 20 academic and research organizations, industry associations, and corporations, from four different countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and Switzerland. ‘The Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences is responsible for the research in the Amsterdam region and will consult the local government to increase awareness and develop tailor-made solutions,’ explains Lemiski

Lemiski has high expectations of the project: ‘Our consortium is made up of a great team of individuals who all see the value of recycling PU, and are enthusiastic about finding the means to create this circular process. If we continue our efforts, we could have a commercial process within ten years.’

City Logistics and Circular Transition

Circular Foam is one of the projects within the lectureship of City Logistics and the them of Circular Transition. City Logistics investigates how city centres and residential areas should respond to the growing volume of freight traffic: which opportunities exist for smart and clean city logistics? Research themes include the use of zero-emissions vehicles (including light electric vehicles), catering supplies, waste, construction logistics, service logistics and public procurement. This research group uses a practice-based approach to examine new revenue models, smart logistics concepts, innovative technology, city hubs and government policies.

Circular Transition focuses on technological solutions that contribute to a circular transition: circular design of packaging, products and buildings, advanced local production using robots, smart return logistics and entrepreneurship with waste streams in the new circular economy.

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Mr  D.A. Lemiski