The Benefits and history of polyurethane flexible foam
From your car seats, to your mattress and your running shoes, polyurethane flexible foam can be found in more places than you think. Without it, it is likely your life would be much less comfortable. But how did it all start and what’s the outlook for the years to come? Michel Baumgartner, Secretary General of the European association of flexible polyurethane foam blocks manufacturers (EUROPUR) explains.
Let’s start from the beginning, when and how was flexible foam first created?
Polyurethane was first made in Leverkusen (Germany) as early as 1937. However, the real history of flexible foam started in 1954 with the first commercial production in Europe and soon thereafter in the United States. From then on, the success was unstoppable. In just a few years flexible polyurethane foam became the material of choice for furniture upholstery and car seats; it also gained a very significant share in the mattresses market. Over time flexible polyurethane foam conquered new markets due to its unique properties; today, it can found in many different applications, from kitchen sponges to clothing, packaging, filters, or sound insulation, just to name a few. Polyurethane foam has become crucial to our daily comfort, without us ever hardly noticing it.
What is the comparative advantage of polyurethane flexible foam versus its competitors?
Polyurethane foam is versatile, lightweight, cost-efficient, and durable. The different families of polyurethane foam that have been developed over time allow producers to develop a virtually endless range of foam types each with specific properties to serve today’s multiple applications foams. No other material used for comfort applications can cover the same broad range of applications. It maintains its properties so well in time that products made out of polyurethane can last for many years.
In addition, flexible foam has environmental benefits. Being composed mostly of air, foam is extremely lightweight and therefore helps in emission reduction in transport applications.
How do you see the market develop in coming months and years?
Just to put things into perspective: we produce around 900,000 tonnes of flexible foam annually in the EU. If you put that in volume, it is equivalent to 9 times the Great Pyramid of Giza, every year. The polyurethane foam market in Europe has a dominant market share in the main applications it is used in (bedding, furniture and automotive). Generally, it evolves in line with the growth rate observed in the economy; however, in the mattresses market polyurethane foam keeps gaining in market share with competing products.
But foam manufacturers are not resting on their laurels. They are constantly developing new products harnessing the foam’s unique properties. So, as European growth is slowly picking up, we are confident that the future will remain bright for our market.
As the discussion on sustainability is more pertinent than ever, what initiatives has the industry taken to improve the product’s life cycle sustainability overtime?
Industry – and thereby I mean the entire supply chain, including raw materials producers – has worked hard to reduce its carbon footprint. In the past 10 years CO2 emissions for the production of flexible PU foam were reduced by 24%, as shown in a study EUROPUR released this year.
In addition, we are one of the few industries with virtually no production waste. Trim (or waste foam from cutting operations) is re-used to produce new products, such as carpet underlay or bonded foam.
Looking ahead, it is all about continuous improvement. Our attention is now turning to end-of-life polyurethane foam, coming back in end-of-life mattresses, furniture or other products. Such foam is currently mostly sent to waste-to-energy plants where its energy content is recuperated in the form or heat or electricity. That is certainly good, but as an industry, we also want to evaluate other options for end-of-life foam, from re-use to recycling. It is not always easy because it requires finding options that are technically feasible on an industrial scale, economically viable and accepted by consumers.
A number of the challenges we have to overcome are outlined in a contribution we sent to the public consultation on a circular economy organised by the European Commission earlier this year. But with a positive attitude and the many talents we have in our industry, we will surely be able to progress on many fronts in the years to come.