Embedding Sustainability Throughout the Foam Industry
The topic of sustainability is one which comes up over and over again, and with good reason. With government initiatives and legislation paving the way in some areas, commercial organizations must also align with ensuring a sustainable approach to their business activities.
There are many areas of the foam industry which have the potential to improve through implementing sustainability into their operations. Here, we take a look at some of the key areas where we can embed sustainability in the foam industry.
Historically, end of life management for foam and other advanced materials has not supported the recycling of disused products. Not only is there a lack of infrastructure in the US which provides recycling and sustainable waste management services for this industry, foams are also a complex material to recycle by nature.
Currently most foam waste is ending up in landfill. One report from 2020 estimated that in the US three million tons of foam are produced annually, whilst 2.3 million tons of foam end up in landfill every year.
There is, however, work being carried out to provide a solution to this end-of-life management problem. Activities being carried out in the recycling of polystyrene is particularly promising. The most common method currently being used to do so is compacting, which densifies the material (also reducing cost by making it cheaper to transport). There are also promising innovations being researched and developed such as chemical recycling.
It’s reported that recycled foams are also lower in price compared to virgin foams, making them more attractive to buyers, in addition to strengthening supply through circularity.
Whilst end-of-life management for polystyrene is proving successful, this is not true for all foam materials. Polyurethane, in particular, is particularly challenging to recycle. This is an area requiring further research in to how to adequately and sustainably handle these materials when no longer useful.
It is no industry secret that supply chains have faced disruptions over the last five or so years. A number of global factors, including the pandemic, geopolitical relations, material shortages, and more, have affected the foam supply chain. In turn, these disruptions have in some cases detracted from innovations and developments in the industry, as well as subsequently impacting their end-use applications.
All is not as bleak as it seems for the supply chain, however. Certainly, directives such as onshoring the supply chain to maximise access to materials are proving to be a step in the right direction.
Additionally, the demand for foam products is not slowing, with a projected growth of CAGR 4.8% from 2020 to 2025, to 114.8 billion USD. Employing new strategies and approaches to the supply chain are crucial to a sustainable industry.
Challenges in the workforce mean that there is a gap in labour that needs to be addressed in the foam industry. One approach to resolving workforce challenges is looking at automation.
Automation and digital transformation have the potential to not only serve in place of a human workforce but can also be more cost and energy efficient. Although it’s unlikely that we will be seeing a fully automated workforce in the near future, due to equipment delays and other logistical barriers which need to be resolved, it does provide an interesting area of development where we could see improvements made to the industry in the long-run. Ensuring longevity within the workforce is crucial to maintaining sustainable operations in the sector.