Over the past 10 years, sustainable development has risen to the top of the political and regulatory agenda. Today more than ever, European policy-makers and industrial actors are working together to ensure European manufacturing remains both competitive and environmentally sustainable.
Product sustainability has become part of the polyurethane industry’s DNA. For years, Isopa and its members have driven innovation and elevated the promotion of sustainability throughout its products’ life cycle to one of its top priorities. Shpresa Kotaji, the Chair of the ISOPA Polyurethane Applications Cluster explains how the polyurethane industry made it.
How has ISOPA’s commitment to a sustainable value chain evolved over time?
For ISOPA, promoting sustainability extends beyond the responsibility of every single one of its members to the industry as a whole. Since its creation in 1987, ISOPA has worked closely both with upstream and downstream associations to develop programmes to ensure the sustainability of polyurethane products from their production to their end-of-life. For example, ISOPA Product Stewardship programmes bring all industrial stakeholders together and work towards developing industry-wide best practices. This is achieved through continuous interaction and training. As our programmes grew in size, we diversified the content in order to address specific needs such as the safety of carriers. This is the force that will be driving our work forward.
More specifically, there are three areas we are particularly proud of:
- Since the 1990s, ISOPA and downstream associations worked to advance the recycling and recovery options for polyurethanes through a series of programmes and initiatives, as well as publications of factsheets and specific reports. Our hard work has been recognised and now ISOPA is considered as a key sectorial player in this field, participating in events, stakeholder consultations or research projects.
- 1993 was also a milestone for ISOPA: this is when the association started working on industrial eco-profiles. Ever since then ISOPA’s data library has been constantly updated. More recently, PUEurope has also been working to test EU product environmental footprint methodologies and have participated in EU standardisation programmes, such as the one on Sustainable Construction.
- Last but not least, another aspect of ISOPA’s activities that has evolved is the participation in the development of eco-labelling. Since the 1990s ISOPA has been an active partner to European institutions and has provided technical and scientific information to ensure the most relevant criteria are developed; for us, this is the only way to ensure high performance and high consumer satisfaction.
What are the main challenges for the industry to promote sustainable practice while maintaining its competitive edge towards its international competitors?
For decades, the European chemical sector, including ISOPA member companies, has gone through tremendous efforts to reduce its energy and resource use and its emissions. Industrial innovation on resource efficiency made great strides at all stages of production.
Taking into account ambitious European climate and energy targets, the global market and the quality of European industrial products, the main challenge going forward will be to ensure that chemical manufacturing in Europe maintains the highest level of quality. Quality is the cornerstone of European excellence.
However, this does not mean that manufacturing outside Europe should be left unregulated. High product stewardship standards should be required from all players, both within and outside of the EU. Nonetheless, regulation should be smart and flexible, adjusting to the realities of the market in order to reward quality.
In addition, to maintain its global edge, the EU must ensure its energy market is efficient and consolidated. Energy efficiency standards combined with other methods to strengthen Europe’s energy security will lower energy prices both for energy-intensive companies and for consumers. This can be achieved by creating the framework to support innovative materials, such as polyurethanes which are used in transport and buildings, which together account for 60% Europe’s energy use.
For example, special focus should be given on thermal renovation of the building stock – not only will it create jobs locally, thus boosting the economy but it will also ensure consumers pay a lighter energy bill while using sustainable material produced in the EU.
What are the applications of polyurethane that will have a critical impact on sustainability and comfort in the years to come?
Looking ahead, as our society is aiming at reducing the use of resources; polyurethane will be the material of choice for a significant number of sectors that have been actively engaging to increase their energy efficiency.
From improving the energy saving potential of our building stock, to developing more efficient appliances polyurethane is the material that can enable manufacturers to be ambitious. This is particularly the case of automotive and rail producers who want to drive the boundaries of innovation yet remaining efficient.
As for those in quest of comfort, polyurethane flexible foam will continue to dominate the market for mattresses and furniture; its durability and quality will become increasingly important to an aging population. Not to mention that polyurethane is becoming an increasingly fashionable material for all the sustainable fashionistas out there! “The future starts today, not tomorrow” – and it’s made of polyurethane.