Environmental Impacts from Polyurethane Foam Blanks
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Environmental Impacts from Polyurethane Foam Blanks

In two previous articles, I described the materials used in a surfboard, and the life cycle steps needed to create these materials. This article is the first in a series where I will describe in detail the environmental impacts arising from the production, use, and disposal of the three main components used in 85% of surfboards in the water today; polyurethane (P/U) foam blanks, unsaturated polyester resin (UPR), and fiberglass. Anyone who has ever shaped a surfboard– or even just seen one broken in half or done some ding repair– will be familiar with these materials as being the three primary constituents in a conventional surfboard.

This will not be a full-fledged life cycle assessment, but rather a “hot spot” analysis, identifying the very worst parts of surfboard production.

Polyurethane foam blanks, which have not yet been manufactured into finished surfboards.

The “blank” forms the shape of the surfboard; these are bought by surfboard shapers in “uncut” standard dimensions before being shaped to the precise dimensions of a final surfboard. (There are today many companies producing these “uncut” blanks; you can see some examples of these “uncut” P/U foam blanks for purchase at the USBlanks website.)

By the time the shaper has received these blanks, polyurethane is basically an “inert” material– containing few, if any, significantly toxic chemicals. Most (but not all) of the worst impacts to the environment and human health occur “upstream”, during the manufacture of the P/U foam, which is made from two chemicals, polyols and toluene diisocyanate (TDI). The impacts below are those that are identified to arise from the manufacture of P/U foam from these materials.

factory producing the polyurethane foam

Update: The number of impacts listed here is overwhelming; I have re-framed the discussion to separate impacts into two classes, depending on where they occur:

Direct impacts. These occur at the factory producing the polyurethane foam blanks. They include all those impacts related to the production of polyurethane from polyols and TDI. They include:

Worker exposures to toxic chemicals (TDI)

Plastics pollution from foam waste which does not go to landfill

Toxic water pollution (not occurring in the United States; only possible in overseas production)

Toxic air pollution (also occurring as an indirect impact)

Indirect impacts. These occur as a result of polyurethane foam production, but do not occur at the factory. There are three main causes: (1) consumption of electricity at the polyurethane foam factory, resulting in dramatic impacts from combustion of fossil fuels at power plants which are usually far from the factory; (2) production of the polyols, TDI, and other materials used at the factory, which if traced “upstream” far enough, ends in the extraction and refining of oil and natural gas; and (3) transportation of the various materials from place to place, by truck, rail, or ship. Indirect impacts include:

  • Global climate change
  • Ocean acidification
  • Smog formation
  • Regional acidification (acid rain)
  • Mercury pollution in the ocean
  • Impacts from the extraction of oil and natural gas

There are many other ways to separate and organize impacts related to polyurethane foam production. When discussing greenhouse gas emissions, what I have called “direct impacts” refer to Scope 1 emissions, while “indirect impacts” would be called Scope 2 and 3. The “indirect” impacts here could be split even further to consider “upstream” impacts from production of polyols and TDI. And if you want to really get into the weeds, polyurethane foam producers are a “Tier 1″ supplier to surfboard manufacturers, while producers of polyols and TDI would be “Tier 2″.

I’ve chosen to separate impacts into “direct” and “indirect” impacts in this case, since it’s the easiest way to organize and interpret this material.

Direct Impacts

Worker exposures to toxic chemicals, primarily toluene diisocyanate (TDI).

Occurs during:

Manufacture of polyurethane foam blanks, where polyols and TDI are mixed in “casts”. Workers not wearing adequate safety equipment are exposed to toxic TDI.

While P/U foam used in most applications (such as boat-building) combines polyols with a less-toxic chemical (MDI, not TDI), surfboard blanks are produced with TDI. TDI is extremely toxic to humans; short-term exposure leads to effects to respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems. Long-term exposures will lead to significant decreases in lung function in workers, an asthma-like reaction characterized by wheezing, dyspnea, and bronchial constriction. TDI is even a probable carcinogen. Workers in P/U foam production factories who are not taking precautions, including wearing appropriate safety equipment and following stringent safety protocols, are at extreme risk.

Worker exposure to TDI can be considered the most significant problem arising from the use of toxic materials in surfboards. The infamous closure of Clark Foam in 2005 (known as “Blank Monday”) was in large part caused by enormous lawsuits levied at the company from a worker who died from TDI exposure.

A worker during P/U foam blank manufacture. The high toxicity of TDI used in the process puts workers at risk, and its vital that blank companies insure rigorous protections for their workers. Photo credit: Surfer magazine.

Companies producing P/U foam blanks with TDI today should at a minimum follow guidelines required by the federal government to minimize these risks (it is surprising to note that some companies do not even follow basic requirements of the law). These companies should also consider shifting to less toxic MDI-based P/U foam to ameliorate these risks even further. (Read more about some of the issues arising from the toxic chemicals used in surfboard manufacture here.)

Plastics Pollution into the Ocean

Plastics Pollution into the Ocean

Occurs during:

Surfboard shaping may result in P/U foam “scraps” which do not go to landfill, but may instead enter the oceans.

This impact will not occur if shapers take care to insure P/U foam scraps are properly disposed of in a landfill.

Pollution of the oceans, including plastics pollution, is one of the threats behind a projected collapse of the global oceanic ecosystem by 2030. Scrap P/U foam on the shaper’s floor may be a threat if this waste does not go to a landfill. Shapers who are diligent about collecting and disposing (or recycling) all P/U foam scraps and dust will have little or no contribution to this impact. Those which are careless may inadvertently cause plastics pollution from P/U foam, as the material escapes into the environment and may find its way to the ocean.

Toxic water pollution.

Occurs during:

Not expected to occur in the United States, due to environmental regulations mandated by the Clean Water Act.

Any production steps overseas (particularly in China or Thailand) may have toxic water emissions, due to the lack of environmental regulations.

Environmental regulations in the United States, enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, restrict toxic pollution to air and water.

In the United States, under the Clean Water Act, very few industries are allowed to emit any toxic chemicals to waterways. Those “exempted” industries that do create water pollution require a permit from the federal government; you can search at this website to find out what facilities near you may be creating water pollution.

In the United States, producers of polyurethane foam are not allowed to discharge water pollution. The only significant emissions to water expected are in countries with weak environmental regulation; you may anticipate this impact only if your blank manufacturer sources its materials from countries such as China or Thailand.

Toxic air pollution.

Occurs during:

May occur during the manufacture of P/U foam, polyols, and TDI.

Also an indirect impact occurring during, electricity generation, especially from coal-fired power plants.

All toxic air pollution will be worse in overseas country (particularly China or Thailand) with little or no environmental regulations.

Since the Clean Air Act was enacted in the United States, emissions of toxic chemicals to the air have been restricted significantly. However, there may still be limited emissions of toxic chemicals such as TDI and VOCs to the atmosphere from manufacturing of P/U foam. Impacts can be expected, but will vary by facility and region. If you are wondering about your blank supplier, you can search the EPA’s AirData system to find out exactly how much (if any) of problematic air pollutants they are emitting.

Indirect Impacts

Global climate change.

Occurs during:

All steps in the supply chain lead to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and possibly black carbon.

Emissions are mainly from electricity generation.

Compared to pre-Industrial times, today the world is approximately 2 degrees Farenheit warmer on the average, which has led to disruptions in weather patterns already having ramifications being felt all around the globe. The warming effects are already having severe impacts on the world oceans, including threatening coral reefs.

Note: While blanks made in the United States will contribute to air and water pollution including global warming and ocean acidification, overseas production will almost certainly have a much larger impact. While the U.S. generates roughly 50% of its electricity from coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, China generates between 80-85%; in addition, Chinese coal fired plants are less efficient and have fewer emissions controls, meaning they consume more coal and emit far more air pollution. All this means that the environmental footprint of a Chinese-made P/U foam blank will be higher than for a US-made blank, even if they are the exact same dimensions and material.

Ocean acidification.

Occurs during:

Similar to climate change, all steps in the supply chain of P/U foam manufacture contribute to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, leading to ocean acidification.

emission of greenhouse gases

Emissions are mainly from electricity generation.

Globally, emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) are fundamentally altering the chemistry of the oceans and have already increased its acidity by 30%; projections are that by later this century, the acidity in the oceans will be higher than any time in the past 20 million years, presenting a dire risk to many ocean-going organisms.

Mercury pollution in the ocean.

Occurs during:

Electricity generation used in all steps in P/U foam manufacture. Mercury emissions primarily are caused by burning of coal.

The world’s primary fuel used for electricity generation is coal. As well as being a significant emitter of GHG (including CO2), coal burning and mining is indicated as the primary reason that oceanic mercury concentrations are skyrocketing today, leading to serious threats to not only ocean going organisms, but human beings as well.

Smog formation (ozone and particulate matter).

Occurs during:

This impact occurs mainly from electricity generation.

May also occur during the manufacture of P/U foam, arising from factory emissions of VOCs and NOx.

Smog is a perennial problem in certain parts of the world (including southern California), where it can result in serious respiratory ailments, and in cases with severe pollution, premature death.

Regional acidification (acid rain).

In some regions, acid rain will cause impacts such as dead lakes where fish cannot survive. In others, due to local water and soil chemistry, it will only have a minimal impact.

Occurs during:

Electricity generation and transportation, from combustion of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. This combustion leads to acidifying emissions such as NOx and SO2.

Electricity generation and transportation will cause acid rain in many regions. It is important to note, however, this will have severe effects on the environment only in “hot spots” which are very sensitive to acid rain; in certain areas, local soil and water chemistry “buffers” local ecosystems from the effects of acid rain. While southern California is not very sensitive to this type of rain, the northeastern United States is infamous for having severe impacts arise from acid rain, including killing off fish in lakes in the Adirondacks and canopy dieback of forests. Many regions in Asia are also “acid sensitive.” Blanks sourced from these regions will contribute to this impact.

Impacts from Extraction of Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas

Occurs during:

Drilling for oil and natural gas, and mining of coal, used directly in the product composition, and also for energy production from electricity generation and transportation.

Energy consumption (including electricity generation and transportation) is the primary contributor for P/U foam.

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster highlighted a perennial problem with fossil fuel extraction, whether it be drilling for oil or mining of coal. These practices lead to a whole host of impacts, including habitat disruption, toxic emissions to air and water, and production of hazardous waste. P/U foam has only an indirect contribution, as most of these fossil fuels go to other uses, but is still responsible nonetheless.

Other Impacts

These impacts are those that have so far been identified as those arising from the life cycle stages of polyurethane foam production. There may be others, particularly in regions where these impacts are less studied, such as in Asia or other countries overseas.