Danish Innovation Pioneers Circular Solution for Recycling Polyurethane Plastic

Photo: Danish Technological Institute

A new Danish-developed technology aims to create a circular solution for a widely used type of plastic, polyurethane (PUR), which is currently very difficult to recycle. The project, PURfection, is a collaborative effort between industry and research sectors, funded by Innovation Fund Denmark with an investment of 12 million Danish kroner. Polyurethane is used in a range of products, including refrigerators, mattresses, shoes, wind turbine blades, and cars, and represents 8% of total global plastic production. Currently, 95% of PUR waste globally ends up incinerated or in landfills, with only a small portion recycled into lower-value applications.

The goal of PURfection is to enable the recycling of used PUR plastic into high-quality polyurethane, like the original material. This process is challenging, so challenging that project manager, Signe Grønborg from the Danish Technological Institute, compares it to extracting flour from a baked cake to reuse in new baking.

The project involves a consortium including the Danish Technological Institute (project leader), Aarhus University, Danish companies PLIXXENT, DanFoam, FLSmidth, Tinby A/S, HJ Hansen, Eldan, Copenhagen Municipality, and the material science-based global company DOW.

The technology, initially developed and patented by Aarhus University and the Danish Technological Institute, focuses on recycling both main components of PUR - polyols and isocyanates. The project also targets other PUR-containing products and complex, mixed waste streams. The PUR-plastics are chemically very different from product to product therefore the next objective is to break down polyol molecules into smaller monomers, creating a clean and uniform raw material suitable for production of various polyurethane types.

PURfection aims for a comprehensive solution for PUR recycling, from production to waste processing and remanufacturing basic chemicals from spent PUR. The consortium's wide-ranging expertise is vital for a circular solution, including industry representatives like Dan-Foam, which produces mattresses and cushions from PUR foam.