How do Polyurethanes affect climate change?

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Polyurethane coexists with you without you even noticing its presence all around.

More and more everyday items employ polyurethane due to its amazing properties – beds, cars, cleaning products, sportswear, sofas, refrigerators, the walls and ceilings of your home, even the shoes you wear out on the street contain polyurethane.

And just as with any other chemical substance that is used on a day-to-day basis, it is the subject of multiple rumours and myths.

What's more, because it's a plastic material, a lot of people associate polyurethane with pollution and climate change. 

In this article, we will show you how using polyurethane contributes to greater sustainable development and how it is pivotal to reducing the negative effects of climate change.

What is polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a plastic material that can hold various forms, both rigid and flexible, depending on its intended industrial application and use.

It was patented in 1937 by doctor Otto Bayer, who worked in the German laboratory IG Farben.

The chemist's goal was to obtain a material that could replace cork, given that his pre-war context —just prior to the Second World War— made access to cork fairly complicated.

Therefore, polyurethane is a polymer that is obtained by combining hydroxylic bases with diisocyanates.

Polyurethane is produced by reacting the diisocyanates with various polyols.

The problem with polyurethane production is that a blowing agent is often required.

Until the 1990s, CFC compounds were used, with very negative impacts on the ozone layer.

That's why many people think that polyurethanes are harmful to the environment.

However, this couldn't be farther from the truth, as our main work and effort within the chemical industry has been aimed at producing more sustainable polyurethanes.

How to reduce the environmental impact of polyurethanes:

As already mentioned, polyurethane is of pivotal importance to everyday life.

The social, economic, and ecological benefits derived from these materials are numerous and substantial. And they definitively surpass the negative impact that their use and implementation may have on the environment.

Let's take a look at how polyurethane affects the environment, particularly in terms of depletion of the ozone layer and climate change.

Polyurethane and the ozone hole:

At the end of the 1970s, measurements gave rise to a worrying fact: the size of the ozone layer in the Earth's atmosphere, whose purpose is to prevent ultraviolet light from passing through it and reaching the Earth's surface, was diminishing at an abnormal rate.

Scientists determined that a hole was being created in the ozone layer due to the excessive emission of CFC gases (which were not only used as blowing agents for polyurethane, but also as refrigerants in air conditioning units and refrigerators).

This elicited a worldwide reaction in the 1980s resulting in limiting use of CFCs and ultimately leading to a complete prohibition of their use in 1996.

At that time CFC gases where replaced with HFCs as polyurethane blowing agents.

The main advantage of these new gases was that they didn't damage the ozone layer, though they did have some impact on the greenhouse effect.

To minimise the environmental impact of these types of gases, chemical companies have developed other chemical processes aimed at expanding polyurethane without causing damage to the ozone layer or increasing the greenhouse effect.

Specifically, at Grup Barcelonesa we have implemented two different methods with optimal efficacy:

  • Gas-based blowing agents: with HFO gases —whose effect on the ozone hole is practically null— we've managed to achieve even more highly closed polyurethane cells. As a result, we've improved their insulation capacity.
     
  • Water as a blowing agent: we also use water to produce the exothermic reaction that allows polyurethane to expand (water is a completely harmless substance meaning its environmental impact is zero). Grup Barcelonesa is one of the leading companies in this new technique which enables the production of more sustainable polyurethane. 

Polyurethane contributes to preventing climate change

As we've seen, polyurethane production could have had significant negative effects on the ozone layer if substances like CFC compounds hadn't been prohibited.

However, in addition to the ozone layer, humanity is facing another immense challenge: climate change.

Global warming due to excessive greenhouse gas emissions is a reality that nobody can deny.

The Earth's climate system is steadily warming, with dangerous consequences if effective measures are not adopted.

To prevent the problem from escalating, one of the propositions is to reduce the use of fossil fuels as an energy source (for transport, power generation, home heating, etc.).

In response, new ways of using energy in a more sustainable manner are being developed (electric cars, heating that uses renewable energy, more efficient use of current resources, etc.).

In terms of this issue, polyurethane plays a fundamental role in reducing the most serious effects of climate change.

If we focus on its most common application as thermal insulation, we can say that a home that uses polyurethane as an insulating material will maintain more comfortable temperatures, thereby reducing heat loss.

In fact, a house that is insulated with polyurethane is estimated to minimise heat loss, and coolness loss in summer, to such an extent that it will need 30% less energy to maintain the same temperature than it would prior to placing polyurethane on walls and ceilings.

Lastly, the insulating power of polyurethane is so strong that it isn't necessary to use the same amount of product as when other materials are used in such an application.

Therefore, a thinner layer is enough to obtain the very same results, which also helps reduce the environmental impact of the manufacture, storage, and transport of much larger quantities.

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