Imagine a scientist wearing a white lab coat standing in the middle of a landfill, garbage as far as the eye can see.
The scientist drags away the bumper of an electric Volkswagen to uncover a moldy, muddy mattress. The date on the tag indicates the mattress is 40 years old. Luckily, the year is 2070 and the materials inside the mattress contain encrypted information that allows the scientist to call in a crew, remove the mattress, and properly recycle the foams used to build the bed.
It sounds futuristic, but that process might be here sooner rather than later. It’s called a circular economy and it’s an approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment, all in one.
Sounds pretty nice, right?
According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a circular economy is “regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources.”
Think of it as a society with a massive recycling system that helps people and companies reuse all different kinds of resources.
Research from McKinsey & Company shows that a circular economy could generate a net economic gain of nearly $2.2 trillion per year by 2030. So it’s only natural that these recycling efforts are supported by businesses who make and try to recycle potentially hazardous waste, like chemical company Dow.
Dow has set up its ChemChain platform to make digital assets that have key-encrypted information within the chemical makeup of their solutions. These assets can be put into the final polyurethane-based products, meaning you can identify the contents of the material at every stage of the product’s lifecycle.
So for mattresses, the ChemChain platform could help anyone who is looking to recycle mattresses access this information and figure out the best way to dispose of it based on its chemical composition.
Working with partners in France, Dow aims to recycle up to 200,000 mattresses a year.
Another chemical company, Covestro, has also begun work on a recycling program that uses foam from used mattresses to make fresh foam.
According to an article on thechemicalengineer.com, “around 30 million mattresses are discarded in the EU each year, and according to data from the trade body EUROPUR around 90% of the mattresses produced in the EU each year contain 2–15 kg of polyurethane foam.”
Polyurethane decomposes at elevated temperatures, making it difficult to recover, and therefore it is not as commonly used as other recycled plastics. That’s why Covestro’s program aims to recover two raw materials used to make polyurethane foam: polyol and toluene diamine.
To do this, used mattresses are first collected and broken down, with the foam separated out. But sorting technology is what makes the magic happen, as it relies on algorithms to identify the different types of foam.
While Dow and Covestra are working in the UK right now, it’s likely a matter of time until it makes its way to the U.S.