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Is Polyurethane Environmentally Friendly?

Is Polyurethane Environmentally Friendly?

People are more focused on products and technologies that are friendly to the environment than ever. With climate change at the front of many political debates, people want to be sure the products they’re using aren’t harmful to the environment and don’t pose any health risks when using.

One industry that takes a lot of flack from those concerned about the environment is the plastics industry. That is because of its reliance on fossil fuels and those mountains of plastic waste all over the planet.

But not all plastics are created equal, and in this piece, we look at polyurethane and answer the question: how environmentally friendly is it?

Hand on polyurethane memory foam
Memory foam is a blend of polyurethane and some chemicals that render it less resilient, and thus creating the "memory" feature.

Polyurethane vs Plastic

First, let’s get the answer out of the way and then look into the specifics. Yes, polyurethane is inherently more eco-friendly than most other plastics. It also doesn’t contain any chemicals that interfere with endocrine and hormone systems, nor does it contribute to PH change in soil or water.

But what about all that plastic waste we see in photos almost everyday? Note that most of the plastics in the shocking photos are thermoplastics, which account for over 95% of the waste seen in the oceans.

In contrast: polyurethane plastics account for less than 2%.

Stated by urethane manufacturers, one reason for this low level of waste is that polyurethane lasts far longer than most thermoplastics. This means industries that rely on polyurethane products aren’t throwing those products out as often because of wear.

Another advantage is that there are a variety of directions one can take to recycle polyurethane parts back into prepolymer constituents from which they were made.

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Also, scientists use microorganisms to break downcast urethane products, and once in the environment, polyurethanes aren’t toxic to the environment as they break down. These facts make polyurethane more environmentally friendly plastic.

The manufacturing process

Okay, so polyurethane itself is better for the environment, but what about the process of making this plastic? Isn’t it just as bad for climate change and the environment as other plastic manufacturing?

Many polyurethane manufacturers work hard to minimize the impact on the environment by optimizing the manufacturing process and becoming more energy efficient.

Also, today’s polyurethane manufacturers continue to work closely with polymer-machine producers to make casting systems that reduce the amount of waste coming from the manufacturing process.

polyurethane wheel
Polyurethane tires are a popular choice in industrial applications because of their quietness in operation when compared to harder wheels such as steel or cast iron. The polyurethane acts as a shock absorber and helps to cushion the ride and absorb bumps from uneven terrain.

Note that advancements in 3D printing and simulations of how materials flow through molds mean that engineers can design molding systems that drastically reduce the amount of waste material produced.

Being able to reclaim parts and re-use existing metal components means that you can refurbish polyurethane cast parts, which is not as easy to do with other products. Some metal components can last virtually a lifetime as long as the urethane section is upgraded when needed.

So, for instance, a wheel hub may have a lifespan of over 30 years, which benefits the environment by not having to manufacture parts as often.

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Lastly, the polyurethane industry as a whole continues to work towards improving the end-of-life phase of their products to increase sustainability.

We can see that the industry is making significant progress towards increasing the amount of material that’s recovered and recycled and reducing what goes into landfills.

How polyurethane helps the environment

While opponents point out that polyurethane manufacturing uses fossil fuels such as oil, which contributes to climate change, what they fail to mention is how the polyurethane products themselves fight against climate change and benefit the environment.

First:

Polyurethane products are effective insulators, which improves the energy efficiency of buildings, thus reducing the energy required to heat and cool, and consequently lowering carbon emissions.

Polyurethane wheels tpc

Second: polyurethane products make vehicles more fuel-efficient because they’re lighter than other materials.

Another example where polyurethane benefits the environment is in the use of domestic refrigerators which use polyurethane as an insulator to increase energy efficiency. Improving energy efficiency goes a long way to reducing carbon emissions and the effects those have on climate change.

Lastly, in many places, polyurethane waste is used to generate power for solid waste incineration thus reducing the need for fossil fuels.

Polyurethane foam on wall for soundproofing
Polyurethane foam is used for soundproofing rooms as it is able to absorb sound waves due to its acoustic-damping properties.

Polyurethane is an extremely versatile material and is used in a variety of industries and applications from automotive to furniture, bedding, appliances, construction, and more.

What makes polyurethane so attractive are its longevity and energy efficiency, both of which have positive impacts on the environment and the effects of climate change.

Also, what does end up going to waste is non-toxic and won’t damage soil or water. As the polyurethane industry moves forward, it continually develops new ways to reduce the amount of waste it produces and to increase the energy efficiency of the manufacturing process.

Properties of polyurethane

Technical characteristics of polyurethane make it an indispensable structural material in many industries where products must have high resistance, wear resistance, resistance to aggressive environmental influences.

  • The density of the polyurethane depends on its type, indicators can be in the range of 30-300 kg/m3.
  • Polyurethane has a wide range of hardness from very soft, like a gel bicycle seat (~25 Shore OO), to very hard, like a bowling ball (~75 Shore D). But the sweet spot for many of its performance properties occurs from 55 Shore A to 75 Shore D.
  • Polyurethane has an extensive operating temperature range, from -60 to +80 °C, short-term use at + 120-140 °C is possible without loss of technical characteristics.
  • Polyurethane has high elasticity with high hardness of the material, its strength indicators reach up to 50MPa. It can stretch up to 650% without damage.
  • Polyurethane does not conduct electricity.
  • Polyurethane has a low weight, which gives an alternative to using products with a lower weight.
  • Ozone resistance is also a definite plus, polyurethane does not collapse under the influence of ozone, such as rubber.
  • Polyurethane is highly resistant to acids, oils, solvents.

The main competitors of polyurethane are rubber, plastic and metal.

Compared to rubber, polyurethane has higher wear resistance and elasticity, is not susceptible to oils, gets dirty less, ages more slowly, takes shape more quickly after deformation and better tolerates mechanical stress.

If we compare polyurethane with metal, it is obviously more flexible, has less weight, does not conduct electricity and is less susceptible to abrasives. Polyurethane is also much cheaper to manufacture and maintain, mechanisms equipped with parts from this material create less noise. All this affects the quality and cost of the final product.

In comparison with plastic, polyurethane shows better results at high and low temperatures, it is more flexible, does not crack under shock and other mechanical stress.

Choosing a reliable urethane product manufacturer can be difficult, but TPC Inc. team makes it easier. If you have any questions about urethane and polyurethane solutions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with them here

"Knowing the pros and cons of each material before you get in too deep is very important to make your project a success. I think there are common misconceptions about polyurethane specifically, and I want to bring those to light. Matmatch is a really helpful site for consumers and suppliers alike trying to find the right material for their applications, and I wanted to be a small addition to that."
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*This article is the work of the guest author shown above. The guest author is solely responsible for the accuracy and the legality of their content. The content of the article and the views expressed therein are solely those of this author and do not reflect the views of Matmatch or of any present or past employers, academic institutions, professional societies, or organizations the author is currently or was previously affiliated with.

1 comment Add New Comment

  1. It’s great to know that using polyurethane as a casting material is cost-effective for many people in the long run. I guess I can try asking around to see if anyone offers this so I can try having some toy cars cast. My brother told me that he wants to try starting a toy car company with me, and since we want to try creating the design that we have from scratch, it would make sense if we are to make a prototype of it first.

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