So many people seeking a wholly organic and environmentally friendly lifestyle automatically assume any material with a chemical sounding name will cause them harm. Yet that is a notion that is so inaccurate, it is almost laughable. According to the Polyurethane Foam Association, polyurethane is produced as a result of the reaction of two organic materials: polyol (a naturally occurring alcohol) and diisocyanate (groups of isocyanates from plant or animal matter), together with water.
When the reaction takes place bubbles form and the substance expands, almost like the process of baking a pound cake. Various measures of each ingredient or different methods of mixing will produce varied consistencies and densities of foam. Some forms are hard like plastic, others are extremely soft. Depending on the density and presence of elastomers, polyurethane foam foam is formed into everyday materials such as all manner of fabric coatings and synthetic fibers. The durability of the foam and ability to be impervious to moisture, translates into an excellent material for outsoles and midsoles of footwear. Low density and flexible foams are perfect for bedding and upholstery.
Rigid polyurethane foam that is so high in density it becomes a plastic, is used for casting structural parts for buildings. The small bezels in jewelry, watches and electronic instruments are made from more dense polyurethane foam. Foam that is rigid and reasonably compact can be easily formed into specific shapes using molds. Therefore polyurethane foam is very popular in the construction industry for use as structural foam, particularly for a building facade. The vehicle industry makes use of polyurethane foam in the vehicle fascia and the protective ‘skin’ of the interior surfaces, such as the dashboard. Let’s also not forget how polyurethane foam is used in a spray form and as a highly efficient insulating material in buildings and vehicles. Millions of dollars in energy costs are saved every year, but billions more may be saved by a wider use of spray foam insulation in residential and commercial applications.
Alright, so we know what polyurethane foam can be used for, but what about sustainability? Let us first address the insulation factor. By reducing the heating and cooling costs for every structure, in both residential and commercial buildings, permanent and modular greenhouse gases can be significantly diminished. Mining and transportation of fuel is reduced, as are all the activities related to energy consumption. As a moisture resistant material, polyurethane spray foam insulation also prevents mold and moisture damage to structures, thus reducing the unnecessary use of raw materials for repairs.
One of the largest misconceptions regarding polyurethane foam is in its manufacturing process. Since the end product is not an organic material, many believe the foam is created in an environmentally harmful manner. In truth, polyurethane foam is created through an exothermic reaction that requires very little energy or water. That means the polyol and the diisocyanate releases its own energy through the naturally occurring chemical reaction, negating the need for a further ‘push’ via mechanical means to produce the end product. This natural process also means there are no off-gasses from the cured foam.
Furthermore, polyurethane foam is sustainable in that it is recyclable. According to the Polyurethane Foam Association (PFA), all polyurethane foam products are used for recycling purposes. The association itself has created a collection and reuse program that is one of the most successful in the world to date. Hundreds of millions of pounds of post-consumer waste in the form of polyurethane foam is rerouted away from landfills and used as a bonded carpet cushion. Data from the PFA tells us about 80% of all carpet cushion used in the US is produced from recycled polyurethane foam.
Living green is not always as simple as organic foods and the complete abandonment of anything man-made. Living in an environmentally friendly manner means making smart choices for the earth and for society. True and lasting sustainability is only achievable through first educating oneself with balanced information from reputable sources, then using that information to make realistic changes in our everyday life. Not one of us can change the world by our self, yet we can do the small things that culminate in larger change. Begin with making your home more energy efficient. Change light bulbs to cost saving energy star lighting. Conduct an energy audit on your home, then block up all those drafts with spray foam insulation. You can make a difference with polyurethane foam!