What's Down is Up

By: John A. Lanier

Researchers have developed a recycling technology that allows them to turn polyurethane foams and films into a dense plastic with potential applications like shopping cart wheels or car bumpers. I can get down with that kind of upcycling.

In desperate search for new quarantine activities for our young children, my wife discovered a cool idea awhile back. We started saving paper towel and toilet paper tubes, and when we had enough, she taped them to our wall with painter’s tape. They zig-zag down the wall, the end of one tube leading to the opening of the next, creating a track for marbles to roll down. It was a hit with our kids, and a great example of upcycling those tubes.

Apparently I’ve never written about upcycling and downcycling before. Maybe this subject is common knowledge, or maybe not. I really have no idea. But I’m notorious for a forced opening, and this gives me an angle to share a cool news story, so up/downcycling it is!

Most people know the basics of recycling. Take the humble aluminum can – by tossing it in the blue bin, we set it on a path to being melted down and then recast as a new aluminum can. One aluminum can becomes another in an endless loop – the exemplar of recycling.

Recycling is a broad category of practices though, and it includes both upcycling and downcycling. Upcycling is when, instead of recycling like-for-like, a material or object is turned into a higher-value material or object from both an economic and environmental perspective. A high-tech example is making countertops out of post-consumer paper. Low-tech examples are the marble track I mentioned above and turning a big cardboard box into a kids’ play fort.

And you guessed it – downcycling is the…downside…of recycling (ugh, that was some lazy wordplay, even for my standards). This is when a material or object is turned into a lower-value material or object, usually because it’s made of stuff that can’t be recycled like-for-like. Most plastics are like this – the act of recycling them degrades the polymer, and they end up being used in a lower-value form.

Polyurethane is one such plastic. It comes in many forms, but common examples are memory foam pillows, automobile seat cushions, and spray foam insulation. Due to the nature of its chemical bonds, melting polyurethane breaks the bonds and ruins the material’s usability. So most polyurethane just ends up in a landfill at the end of its life, and what is recycled is downcycled into things like bonded foam carpet pads.

It appears, however, that some researchers at the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University have found the upside to polyurethane’s downside. They’ve developed a recycling technology that allows them to grind up polyurethane foams and films, apply a catalyst, and then remove all the tiny bits of air. The end result is a dense plastic with potential applications like shopping cart wheels or car bumpers. I can get down with that kind of upcycling.

Here is a great Forbes article about it, and you can read the University of Minnesota’s press release here. It’s a promising development for sure, and I’m hopeful that the technique can have even wider application with other troublesome plastic types. If this scales, it will be another example of the exciting potential that comes with transitioning to a more circular economy.

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