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Over 80% of the lifecycle energy of a car is derived from fuel consumption during its lifetime. This means that the first priority must be to reduce fuel consumption and to lower emissions. Polyurethanes support that objective because they are lightweight.

But all products at some point reach the end of their working lives and so does your car.

In the European Union, so called “End-of-Life Vehicles” (ELVs) are subject to the stringent rules set by the ELV Directive (2000/53/EC).

This directive sets mandatory recycling targets for ELVs and over time has banned the use of certain substances in cars. More information on the ELV in general is available on the European Commission’s website [hyperlink to: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/elv/index.htm]

A typical car contains about 15kg of polyurethanes, of which around 8.5 kg of polyurethane foam in car seats. These can be recycled through a range of different methods. The choice of the method is left to the recycler, who takes into account technical and economic condition, such as local conditions, market capacities for recyclates and technical / economic feasibility.

  • Mechanical recycling: To be recycled, polyurethane foam contained in car seats must be mechanically separated from the seats structure. This usually needs to take place manually and comes at a cost since the foam must be separated from its textile or leather cover and metal inserts must be removed. Once separated, the foam can be recycled into rebounded foam and used for applications such as vibration and sound dampening, flooring, sport mats, packaging and carpet underlay. The market for rebounded foam is however limited and can only accept a fraction of seat foam from ELVs.

  • Chemical Recycling: Production scrap (from trimming and cutting of pieces) can be chemically recycled via glycolysis processes to produce polyols. This technique is not widely applied by moulded polyurethane foam plants as the production process of moulded foam by definition only produces limited amounts of scrap.
  • Feedstock recycling: Feedstock recycling is a technology used for recovering value from large quantities of post-consumer and industrial plastic waste. Essentially, the process involves recovering hydrocarbons from mixed plastic wastes and feeding them back into the petrochemical manufacturing chain as feedstock materials, to produce new raw materials.
  • Energy recovery: Being produced mostly from products derived from crude oil, polyurethane foam is a welcome feedstock on waste-to-energy plants. Polyurethanes have a recoverable energy value comparable to that of coal.

Euro-Moulders and ISOPA have created a leaflet “Driving with Polyurethanes”  that gives more information on end-of-life options got polyurethanes used in cars.