The possibilities within Polyurethane Foam: FOAM IT, By Sara Regal Alonso
by Purva Chawla
Part 1/About PU Foam:
PU (Polyurethane) Foam–A material we've come to know as the spongey infill to furniture. As a vital component of upholstery and protective packaging, we are all too familiar with this flexible and lightweight material.
But what happens to the countless tufts of PU Foam left behind during its processing and applications? And even more importantly, where do the clumps of this still-valuable, long-lasting material go at the end of life of products such as sofas, mattresses, and custom-packaging?
Among the practices used to address the rising volume of discarded Polyurethane Foam today–more than 1.6 million tons of PU foam scraps were produced in 2016–are incineration, landfill disposal, and recycling. Recycling in particular, with both mechanical and chemical recycling formats, holds the most promise for the recovery and reuse of PU Foam.
Mechanical recycling results in familiar products such as Rebonded Flexible Foam or “Rebond,” which is made of chopped pieces of flexible polyurethane foam and a binder to create carpet underlay, sports mats, cushioning and more. Also typical is the grinding of PU Foam scraps to a fine powder, and it's subsequent use to create fresh Polyurethane Foam or binding it into hard boards and molding format.
Part 2/PU Foam through fresh eyes:
So far, however, none of these recycling processes have capitalized on the aesthetic and structural possibilities within disparate and discarded bits of PU Foam, nor have they chosen to reveal them in products.
For this reason, Product Designer and Educator Sara Regal Alonso's project FOAM IT comes as a welcome and visually pleasing surprise. Working with a Swiss recycling factory, Alonso has created FOAM IT–a hundred percent recycled and recyclable modular seating system, designed for pop-up events, and made entirely from Polyurethane Foam scraps.
Rather than using recycled PU Foam as a soft and thin filler or lining attached, unseen, to other materials, which makes it impossible to be recycled again, FOAM IT is composed of only solid blocks of varied foam scraps, which have been rebound robustly together. Also generated by this recomposition of foam scraps are vibrant and beautiful patterns and combinations of color.
FOAM IT's custom-shaped blocks by Alonso make use of the recycling factory's existing machinery, and are only thinly coated with a transparent application which keeps the end product moisture and dust-free.
Part 3/ FOAM IT:
As a system, FOAM IT comprises 4 distinct modules and robust shapes–each equipped with two holes for it to be tied to a neighboring unit–which can come together to form an array of seating options for temporary, permanent and flexible use: from solo seats to curving, straight and infinite sofas.
In addition to the aesthetic and tactile richness of Alonso's recomposed material and product, and its inherent flexibility as a system, its biggest attraction is the ease of its own recyclability.
Entire Blocks of FOAM IT, at the end of their life, can directly go through a shredding machine to become material for fresh blocks of recycled PU Foam. Clearly, in creating FOAM IT, Alonso's outlook is exceptionally forward-thinking, focussed on the potential of PU Foam as a long life cycle product application. “My goal during this project was to show the potential and beauty of this material through a present-day application," she says.