San Antonio, Texas — Sustainability and circularity took center stage at the start of the Polyurethane Technical Conference organized by the American Chemistry Council's Center for the Polyurethane Industry.
"We're fostering a platform here at the conference for the exchange and insights on circularity, the formation of partnerships and the supportive research underpinning this area," CPI Senior Director Lee Salamone said in her opening address Sept. 25 in San Antonio.
"This function is pivotal as it circles back to advocacy, helping ensure that markets remain receptive to products that embrace circular design, integrate recycled materials and win the hearts of the public. But it's not just about advocating it's continuing to promote polyurethanes as a sought-after choice for customers," Salamone said.
This year's CPI steering committee chair, Pavneet Mumick, global vice president of technology and innovation at Huntsman Polyurethanes, noted that Huntsman has added circular content to reduce its carbon footprint.
"The pressure to become more sustainable and circular in our practices is mounting, and it is crucial that we, as an industry, rise to this challenge," he said. "Our mission must be to make more and more polyurethane products recyclable. This will be a significant challenge, but we must continue to push the boundaries to achieve full circularity."
But Mumick offered words of caution. He noted that young people are hesitant to pursue careers in the chemical industry, which has suffered damage to its reputation. He warned against kneejerk legislation.
"We must remain vigilant to potential over-regulation at the federal and the state levels. We need to find a delicate balance between sustainable progress and regulatory measures to ensure our industry's growth and success," he said.
"To all of you here today, I implore you to join hands as we embark on this transformative journey. Together we can all advocate for science-based regulation that foster innovation as well as sustainability. By showcasing the positive impact of polyurethanes and chemistry, we can change perceptions and inspire a new generation of environmentally conscious professionals."
In a keynote address, consultant Debbie Mielewski — formerly the technical fellow of sustainability at Ford Motor Co. — detailed her 36 year career at Ford. She said during her time there she went from being the oddball in the room talking about green issues to finding a sustainability focus being central to the company's efforts.
Mielewski detailed many of the catastrophes that the planet has faced in recent decades: losing two-thirds of our wildlife in just 50 years; deforestation continuing at a rate equivalent to a football field of trees being lost every second; air pollution; dying coral reefs; and the recent discovery of eight different types of plastic being found in human heart tissue.
Despite this, Mielewski said, "I really am positive for the future."
She cited several examples of actions that have had huge effects on saving the planet such as rewilding, the recovery of the ozone layer after the phasing out of CFCs, and the introduction of appliance labeling in the U.S. in 1980.
"We moved, and we did something. This has saved hundreds of quadrillions of BTUs over the years," she said.
Moving specifically to polyurethane, Mielewski said, "I also hear a lot of angst around are we gonna do mechanical recycling? 'No, it stinks.' We should do chemical recycling? 'No, it's bad.' We're gonna need every solution."
"Every single one of these solutions is going to have its use and so we have to not give up mechanical recycling, which has recently been criticized for microplastics, ... because the equipment hasn't been designed to capture them. We need to redesign that equipment to solve that issue not abandon mechanical recycling.
"So we have a choice of mechanical recycling, bio-based feedstocks, chemical recycling and even using carbon dioxide itself instead of emitting it. ... And so Ford was one of the first, with Novomer ... and in 2016, we showed that you could use up to 50 percent, carbon dioxide-based polyols and meet the requirements for polyurethane seating foam and, nobody believed that that was possible."
The PTC concludes Sept. 27.