Minimising the environmental impact of the products and goods that we purchase is incredibly important. This isn’t a recent issue, however. From the first day that foam was produced and cut to size, the discussion of what to do with the scrap from the manufacturing process has been on the minds of industry experts and professionals.
Scrap foam—or foam offcuts—are a natural by-product of the manufacturing process. Take, for example, ethylene-vinyl acetate copolymer, or EVA foam, which is made in a mould, pressed under great pressure into large slabs of foam, and then cut into jigsaw-shaped mats.
Product efficiency standards dictate that each slab of foam be used to produce the most amount of components as possible. Yet each slab, when processed and cut to size, leaves a significant amount of waste.
In the past, the most common ways to dispose of scrap foam has been incineration and landfills. However, new technological advances have created new innovations to recycle waste foam. This includes both scrap offcuts and waste foam which have been used by consumers.
Common Methods to Dispose of Scrap Foam
The methods for disposal of foam products usually depend on the density and quality of the material. All too often, however, foam is usually burnt, and this process releases toxic gases into the atmosphere. Incineration is both hazardous to those working in the facilities and for the environment0.
Scrap Foam in Landfills
The largest percentage of waste foam goes into landfills. According to the Centre for Smart, an organisation dedicated to recycling consumer products, the waste arising from discarded shoes with foam insoles is estimated at 1.2 million tonnes per year in the European Union. Comparatively, in the UK alone, 85% of the waste from discarded shoes goes into a landfill1. Inside each pair of shoes is EVA foam, a flexible foam which appears in many consumer products, from insulation to foam mobile phone protection covers.
Athletic mats fare little better, and instead most are tossed away with the rest of the rubbish. For polyurethane foam alone, conservative estimates are that millions of tonnes of PU foam mats end up in landfills.
Physical Forms of Recycling
In the last twenty years, there has been a swell in recycling companies that recycle foam products. There are two major ways of recycling foam products, and they are physical (grinding the foam into small pieces) and chemical (through the use of a chemical binding agents).
For EVA, PU, and XPE foam, the major alternative to incineration and landfills is physical recycling. Although PU and XPE mats are significantly different in their makeup (PU is a soft, open celled foam, whilst XPE is harder, closed cell foam) both can be ground up into reconstituted chip foam.
Reconstituted foam is made through a granulating process, where waste foam is ground up into millimetre sized chunks, which are then rebonded and then compressed to various densities. There are many applications for chip foam, which include packaging, carpet underlay, floor mats, sound absorption panels.
Physical recycling is the most common form of recycling foam because it doesn’t use chemical additives or machines, which may increase the cost of producing recycled foam. This is because the manufacturing process involves heat and compression to bind the loose foam granules. Reconstituted chip foam is most commonly found in carpet underlayment.
An alternative to physical recycling, chemical recycling involves the use of chemicals to break down foam into a residue which can be processed into a resin compound. This recycled foam resin compound is then added into a virgin (brand new) foam compound to create new foam mats. Industry standards prescribe only 30% foam resin when creating new foam mats2.
This process is used primarily for blending scrap EVA foam and virgin EVA foam, and involves both a cross-linking agent and a blowing agent. To aid in the combination of scrap and new materials, a compatibiliser is used to bind the products together.
Difficulty Recycling EVA foam
The major issue in recycling foam mats is that it is an inherently volumetric but lightweight material, so it’s too light to be worth the effort to recycle3. Your local waste recycling centre may take your waste foam mats, but, once sorted, these mats may still end up in a landfill. Right now, the technology to reconstitute foam mats hasn’t caught up with the demand to process them.
Most companies that specialise in recycling foam stick to Styrofoam or polystyrene, commonly used in fast food container, which are easier to melt down and pour into moulds to create new products.
Options for Recycling Your Foam Mats
If you no longer need your athletic mats, and would like to make the environmentally conscious choice, you have a couple of choices. Specialised recycling programmes are available that increase the likelihood that your foam mats will end up at a processing centre to be reconstituted into new mats. You could also “upcycle” your foam mats and use them for other purposes around your home.
In addition to the technological innovations that have erupted in the last decade, several companies have sprung up to collect recycled products. There are business that specialise in collecting and sorting your recycled products, and this maximises the amount of waste that can be turned to into new consumer products. It also takes the stress out of sorting your goods.
One such company that is gaining traction in the UK is ZeroWaste Box programme for recycling goods from TerraCycle4. The first thing that you need to do is select a box which fits the type of product you’d like to recycle. They have boxes specialised towards juice pouches, VHS tapes, and even PPE like safety glasses. In your case, if you’re getting rid of EVA mats, you’d probably aim for the sports equipment box5.
With every mat, you get four edge pieces which allow you to put straight angles on the edge of your mats. As a result, there’s a little waste leftover after purchasing an athletic mat. A recycling programme like the ZeroWaste Box would be best to collect any edge pieces and cut-offs from the installation process.
TerraCycle’s goal to process and recycle products that are considered ‘non-recyclable’ is admirable. However, it should be noted that this service is on the pricier end, and may be more appropriate for smaller products. They offer a few different sized boxes, ranging from a small box at 25X25X46cm to a large which is 38X30X100cm. And for the size, it comes in at a hefty price. However, with that price comes the assurance that your waste will reach the proper recycling facility, and change the final destination of your waste foam from a landfill to being used in new consumer products.
Donate Your Foam Mats
Foam mats have an incredibly long life-span and, although you may be done with them, someone else could well use them. You have many options for giving away your waste mats. Your local Oxfam shop will take all properly cleaned mats, and they’ll find a good home. Another option is listing it online through Facebook Marketplace or Kijiji. Unless your mats are completely ruined, someone will make use of them.
Repurpose Your Mats
One of the best things you can do with your old foam mat is to find another use for them around your home. Foam mats are incredibly durable, especially closed cell foams like EVA, so they hold up really well outdoors. Always keep in mind that, since foam is relatively light, use foam as underlayment for sheds or pop up pools.
Another great use for foam mats is to add another layer of cushioning underneath dog bed. Foam mats possess exceptional insulation properties, and can create a barrier between a cold concrete floor and your dog’s bed. Other brilliant uses include anti-fatigue flooring for a workshop,
Only 9% of global plastic waste has been recycled, and this includes foam6. We all have a role to play in minimising waste and finding ways creative solutions to recycling and reusing the products that we purchase. For foam mats, it takes a discernment to find the best way to dispose of them. EVA foam products, like shoe insoles and athletic mats, are usually either incinerated, creating toxic fumes, or thrown into a landfill.
The best thing that you can do is to speak with your local waste recycling centre, check to see if they’ll recycle the mats. Otherwise, reach out to a recycling program like TerraCycle’s ZeroWaste Box programme, and you’ll have peace of mind that your mats are being taken to a processing centre.
Ultimately, the best option is to repurpose your old gym mats for other uses around your home. Use your imagination and be creative with using your old mats. It’s always nice when you can make use of something that you have lying around in your home.
Author: David Van Kooten