Covestro aims to close material cycle for rigid foams used in refrigerators and buildings

  • Covestro coordinates EU innovation project involving 22 partners from nine countries 
  • Development of innovative chemical recycling processes for rigid polyurethane foams as key to circular economy
  • Savings potential of one million tonnes of waste and 2.9 million tonnes of CO2 annually from 2040 onwards

Covestro is working with 21 other partners from nine countries to close the material cycle for rigid polyurethane (PU) foams. As insulation material in refrigerators and buildings, these foams help to significantly increase energy efficiency. However, to date there is a lack of coordinated waste management and suitable recycling processes for a sustainable life cycle. The CIRCULAR FOAM project coordinated by Covestro aims to change that. Under its umbrella, experts from science, business and society will develop a comprehensive solution model over the next four years. The goal is to close the material cycle for PU rigid foams and to prepare the Europe-wide implementation of this blueprint. This could save one million tonnes of waste, 2.9 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and 150 million euros in incineration costs every year in Europe from 2040 onwards.

"For us, CIRCULAR FOAM is an additional lighthouse project with which we are advancing the realization of the circular economy and taking decisive steps toward a sustainable future," explains Dr. Markus Steilemann, CEO of Covestro. “An important key to this is the development of innovative recycling technologies for as many types of plastic as possible. The chemical recycling of rigid polyurethane foam will be an important link in this chain.”

    Chemical recycling is paving the way to a circular economy

    Chemical recycling enables the reuse of materials which, at the end of their life cycle, cannot be re-introduced into the material cycle by mechanical recycling due to their properties. This also includes PU rigid foams from refrigerators and buildings. Today, these materials are incinerated for energy recovery. In this process, the raw materials used are lost and high CO2 emissions are produced.

    Thanks to the CIRCULAR FOAM project, this is set to change. Under the leadership of Covestro, the innovation project is investigating and developing two possible recycling paths for PU rigid foams: chemolysis and smart pyrolysis. The aim in developing the two new processes is to obtain polyols and amines as raw materials for the production of PU rigid foams in as high a quality as possible and thus enable their reuse.

    To achieve this, Covestro is working closely with RWTH Aachen University and its CAT Catalytic Center, ETH Zurich, BioBTX and the University of Groningen. The project will also explore how the two processes can be transferred to industrial use as quickly as possible. Covestro had previously already developed a chemical recycling process for flexible foams from mattresses and successfully implemented it on a pilot scale in early 2021.

    Material cycles pave the way to a sustainable future

    One of the preconditions for the recycling of PU rigid foams in the EU is the Europe-wide systematic collection, disassembly and sorting of the material at the end of its useful life. There is significant potential for improvement in this area, as less than half of all discarded refrigerators in Europe are collected to date. Optimizing the product formulation for rigid foam can also promote better recycling.

    Covestro will collaborate in all these areas. "We are excited about bringing our expertise in application development, digital R&D and chemical recycling to the project, which will provide an impetus for a new, pan-European circular ecosystem for rigid polyurethane foams," explains Dr. Torsten Heinemann, Head of Group Innovation at Covestro.

    The CIRCULAR FOAM project therefore represents a further key building block in Covestro's long-term strategic program to fully align the company to the circular economy. The company only announced at the end of September that it would be investing around one billion euros in projects specifically aimed at circular economy over the next ten years.

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    This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 101036854


    About Covestro:

    With 2020 sales of EUR 10.7 billion, Covestro is among the world’s leading polymer companies. Business activities are focused on the manufacture of high-tech polymer materials and the development of innovative, sustainable solutions for products used in many areas of daily life. In doing so, Covestro is fully committed to the circular economy. The main industries served are the automotive and transportation industries, construction, furniture and wood processing, as well as electrical, electronics, and household appliances industries. Other sectors include sports and leisure, cosmetics, health and the chemical industry itself. At the end of 2020, Covestro has 33 production sites worldwide and employs approximately 16,500 people (calculated as full-time equivalents).

    Forward-looking statements

    This news release may contain forward-looking statements based on current assumptions and forecasts made by Covestro AG. Various known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors could lead to material differences between the actual future results, financial situation, development or performance of the company and the estimates given here. These factors include those discussed in Covestro’s public reports which are available at www.covestro.com. The company assumes no liability whatsoever to update these forward-looking statements or to conform them to future events or developments.