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3 – 5 DECEMBER 2024



3 – 5 DECEMBER 2024



Circular Economy Requires Supply Chain Collaboration and Open Innovation

The Triple Helix recycling plant that is now being built in the port of Antwerp is one of many initiatives to create a circular economy for PU foam from mattresses, car seats, and furniture, partly in response to European Union sustainability regulation. New players are finding benefits in being in the new circular value chains.

Steven Peleman received his building and environmental permits recently. Construction will start in September. Peleman’s recycling plant should be up and running in the NextGen District in the port of Antwerp by the second half of 2024.

The project was announced last year. Triple Helix, one of a cluster of circular companies, would build a factory to convert polyurethane foam from discarded mattresses, car seats, and other sources into polyols for reuse in new polyurethane products.

"We're doing PET to polyol, flex PU to polyol, rigid PU to polyol", Triple Helix founder, Peleman, states. The entire plant has been designed and engineered in 3D. He has placed orders for machine lines. Government subsidies and VC funding are in place.

Recycling mattresses and furniture is an explicit goal of the EU sustainability policy. Most mattresses are still thrown away after about ten years, even though they are easier to recycle than car seats and most furniture. Almost half of all mattresses are currently landfilled and a third are incinerated, according to the European Bedding Industry Association in 2020.

The European Commission estimated that less than 10% of furniture is recycled across the EU. The revised Landfill Directive and Waste Framework Directive (WFD) directs the EU Member States to start phasing out landfilling and incineration, or ‘waste-to-energy’, as options in waste management in favour of other end-of-life solutions, such as recycling.

Triple Helix is not alone in accepting the challenge. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes have been introduced and implemented in several EU countries. Eco-Mobilier in France has been active since 2013, taking care of collecting, sorting, recycling, and recovering end-of-life mattresses and upholstered furniture.

In Belgium, the Valumat scheme started in 2021 to create the collection, dismantling, and recycling infrastructure for mattresses only. Part of the fees paid by end-consumers are used to support research into material and recycling technologies innovation and eco-design. Zero Waste Scotland, supported by the UK’s National Bed Federation, is supposed to become a model for the whole UK.

Spanish energy and petrochemicals company Repsol has announced they are building a chemical polyurethane foam recycling plant at their Puertollano Industrial Complex. BASF developed a chemical process to convert flexible polyurethane from mattresses into polyol and announced in 2020 that they would start pilot tests in Brandenburg, Germany. Other chemical companies have announced similar initiatives.

However, the Triple Helix plant is not a direct response to the EU drive in mattresses. "When we talk about material reincarnation, we really talk about material classes", Steven Peleman says. "I’m basically not interested in mattresses or car seats; I’m interested in polyurethane foam. Of course, there are sources that are easier to collect and sort, but if you only were to do mattresses, you almost make it unaffordable to do the rest of the flex foam collection, the overall cleanup of PU foam."

Peleman wants to take a more holistic approach to the problem. "The energy balance needs to be right and the business model needs to be there. You can easily find business models where the additional cost that is sometimes part of the story is actually covered by a couple of new players that have a benefit in being in this new value chain."

"The idea was to start a portfolio where we create company after company that tries to close material loops. The first one is in the industry we come from, the PU industry, hence our first and biggest initiative is the PU plant in Antwerp, but the goal is to replicate this Antwerp plant across Europe. You have to work with local waste streams. It doesn't make sense to ship around waste across the world."

Realising the circular economy requires supply chain collaboration and open innovation. Steven Peleman has worked with Henry Chesbrough, who coined the term Open Innovation at Berkeley Haas, and co-founded the European Center for Open Innovation with Chesbrough’s Belgian associate Wim Vanhaverbeke. "You need open innovation or ecosystem value or collaborative R&D as a paradigm, because it’s not one-on-one, it’s not just supplier-customer relationships. It’s closing the circle ideally."

Steven Peleman will speak on the Circular Economy panel at the Foam Expo conference, December 5-7 in Stuttgart.