Cutting crew: how collaboration is helping to drive carbon reduction

Posted on 28 Dec 2023 by The Manufacturer

Natalie Watson, Head of Sustainability at The Vita Group, explores the many ways that the flexible PU foam industry is collaborating to minimise the sector’s carbon footprint.

With critical net zero targets looming, companies across the country are increasingly gearing up their ability to operate sustainably. This was evidenced by a recent report from the Science Based Targets initiative, which helps organisations set emissions reduction plans backed up by robust data and best practice guidance. Its report revealed an 87% increase in the number of firms around the world setting science-based targets. UK companies were a key driver of this trend, with the number of companies based here setting such targets ranked behind only Japan.

Natalie Watson, Head of Sustainability, The Vita Group

While this is great news and shows that Britain is moving in the right direction, it is important to recognise that while improving their own green credentials, these businesses also need to be working with each other; one company achieving their emission reduction targets is not enough – we must all get there together.

As a manufacturer with validated science-based targets, this ethos is reflected in Vita’s own climate transition plan, as it places a strong emphasis on reducing emissions related to how a business operates. This means that all aspects of our value chain must be on board or otherwise we simply won’t achieve our goals.

As a leading flexible polyurethane (PU) foam manufacturer, with plants, offices and facilities across Europe, we sit at the centre of many domestic and international industry connections so take this collaborative challenge seriously. In fact, we have seen first-hand the drive to establish multilateral partnerships spanning industry, academia, clients, end users and legislators to improve our collective carbon footprint and make progress towards a circular economy. 

Getting out what you put back

A key lesson our business has learned is that waste can be a valuable resource. Reaching net-zero emissions and a circular economy is going to take a step change in how we think about the manufacturing process; in flexible PU foam this has seen us improve the recycling of existing resources (post-industrial and end of life foam) and reducing petrochemical-derived raw material use.

We’ve been working closely with several partners, including Dow Chemical and Evonik, to pioneer the reuse and recycling of post-industrial and post-consumer materials.

Our work with Dow led to the creation of Orbis, Europe’s first flexible PU foam made with raw materials sourced from recycled foam mattresses. The process involves DOW creating RENUVA polyols, which is the base material from which we can make flexible PU foam, via the Mattress Recycling Program at its ICOA facility in Crancey, France. This program aims to recycle up to 200,000 mattresses a year, diverting a huge amount of material from landfill.

This collaboration is a great illustration of how different organisations can pool their expertise and capabilities to create a circular product. In this way, Orbis is an important example of how we can rethink manufacturing processes moving forward to ensure that the solutions we use every day are simultaneously more sustainable and fit-for-purpose.

And there’s not just one partnership in the sector exploring new ways to reuse foam, as we’re also working with Evonik on the chemical recycling of up to 300,000 tonnes of end-of-life flexible PU foam each year. Evonik has developed a hydrolysis process that allows the polyols contained in flexible PU foam to be completely recovered.

Utilising our four state-of-the-art innovation centres, we’ve worked with Evonik to test the product with competitive results as a concept foam and are continuing to improve the process on a large scale to bring this innovation to market. 

Emily Schweissinger, Technology Manager at Evonik, explained: “Our new hydrolysis technology facilitates the recovery of much higher amounts of polyol and toluene diisocyanate (TDI) – the key raw materials from which polyurethane foams are made. Working together with The Vita Group, we’ve demonstrated the capabilities of this recycled polyol in flexible foam applications. Vita’s concept foam – Orbis Next MB – is made using 100% recycled polyol from our pilot plant in Germany and certified bio-circular mass balance TDI.”

It’s important to recognise that each collaboration isn’t one-dimensional but spans a multitude of business functions. Patrizia Wegner, VP Head of Trading at Covestro, summed this up when discussing the partnership with Vita: “We appreciate the collaboration and partnership across departments, be it marketing, sales or R&D to approach the topic of sustainability in a holistic manner. This collaboration resulted in the use of a CO2 reduced raw material of Covestro in Vita’s sustainable Orbis Plus MB foam. This remarkable innovation not only showcases the power of collaboration but validates the success that can be achieved when companies join forces.”

Breaking new ground

This circular polyol capability would not be possible without the academic relationships that have been established with institutions. Our partnership with Manchester University’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre reflects this approach, as we’re working with them to identify how graphene can make flexible PU foam an even more advanced, sustainable material. 

For James Baker, CEO of Graphene@Manchester, partnerships like this are not only a great way to enhance “the performance of a product range” but offer great opportunities to take UK manufacturers to the next level by “building the local ‘ecosystem’ of businesses and driving innovation in advanced materials.” Without pushing the boundaries like this and developing the industry holistically, the green tech revolution we need simply won’t happen.

Linking the chain together

Ensuring that all aspects of the value chain are operating as sustainably as possible is essential if we’re to become a net zero carbon business. The measurement that really highlights this is when analysing a firm’s Scope 3 emissions, which are defined as ‘other indirect’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, in a company’s value chain.

At Vita, our target (which has been validated by SBTi’s independent climate scientists) is to reduce Scope 3 emissions by 13.5% by 2030 – which we can only do by raising awareness among our supply chain about our sustainability priorities.

There are essentially two main challenges here. The first is ensuring that our suppliers are on the same carbon reduction trajectory as we are, and the second is putting in place robust data-gathering procedures to guarantee that emissions reporting is consistent. This is particularly important for accurately measuring metrics such as global warming potential (GWP) as well as creating in-depth lifecycle analysis (LCAs) for all products.

Creating comprehensive LCAs for products further empowers customers and end users to understand the emissions impact of purchases and therefore make better informed carbon decisions.   

Overcoming these challenges requires us to maximise the value from partnership working and align the value chain between suppliers, manufacturers and customers. Having these conversations and choosing the right customers who have a clear strategy to reduce carbon emissions means the right messages then flow back through the chain and ensures everyone is on the same page. Elaborating on the mutual value creation inherent in sustainable development will also really help here.  

To avoid any confusion around these policies, we arranged roadshows with our suppliers when launching our sustainability policies. These events were designed to explain our ESG strategy and the areas we see as being central to our combined performance.  

The role of regulation

Catalysing meaningful, sector-wide change means forging links with regulators that amplify our calls and ensure that the company’s sustainability efforts are consistent, demonstrable and grounded in action. 

One example of regulatory impact is that the policy landscape in Europe has evolved from focusing on waste to focusing on waste prevention and resource productivity. As a result, rules on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for mattresses, where the financial and practical burden of managing waste is transferred to producers, are set to be introduced. 

In the UK, we strive to support policy makers’ decisions through the provision of information and expertise, and we work closely with industry bodies such as EUROPUR in doing this. 

As part of the National Bed Federation (NBF), The Vita Group has signed up to its ‘Pledge for Our Planet’ which asks companies within the bed industry to take steps in unison to address global environmental damage. This cross-industry action shows government decision makers that we’re serious about this issue and are willing to push the needle.  

Purpose-driven partnerships

The examples outlined here are just the tip of the iceberg, as UK manufacturers can now get involved on collaborations at a global scale. For example, we are signatories of the United Nations Global Compact – one of the world’s most significant corporate citizenship initiatives – which means that we’ll be collaborating in multi-stakeholder partnerships on projects that advance the UN’s development goals. 

This breadth of connectivity, from small-scale, site-level changes to multinational interactions illustrates the 360° nature of the sustainability challenge and how we all need to be exploring every possible partnership to improve the sector. As a commercialisation partner that links a lot of organisations in the chain, we’re well positioned to act as the catalyst and work with each entity to develop, validate and commercialise a better approach.  

Key takeaways

  • Waste can be a valuable resource  
  • The Vita Group has been working closely with several partners to pioneer the reuse and recycling of post-industrial and post-consumer materials 
  • The Vita Group has signed up to its ‘Pledge for Our Planet’ which asks companies within the bed industry to take steps in unison to address global environmental damage 
  • The Vita Group is signatories of the United Nations Global Compact – one of the world’s most significant corporate citizenship initiatives

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