Insulation expert for 50 years: how ambitions and smart choices can shape both past and future
In 2023, Unilin celebrates its 50th year of expertise in insulation. After starting as a small-scale producer of roof elements in 1973 the company has since become the number two in Europe in the insulation panel market. And there are still strong ambitions in store for the future, with sustainability in the starring role.
Two common elements continue throughout the history of Unilin Insulation: smart innovation and responding to the appropriate social trends. In fact, Unilin’s first steps in insulation were a question of innovation: what else can we do with the chipboard that we already produce?
The answer was roof elements. They were made in Desselgem, in a former flax factory. They immediately satisfied a social trend, since there was great demand in the Netherlands, as the ideal product for the series construction so typical in Dutch residential building.
Following a successful start in Desselgem, crisis hit in 1975. A devastating fire destroyed everything, yet they did not give up. A new factory was built, and then more innovation: as from the 1980s, Unilin established its own polyurethane (PU) injection, something that was previously done by an external supplier. From that moment, insulating roof elements were manufactured entirely in-house.
Takeovers fuel growth and innovation
It marked the start of a growth spurt in the 1980s and 90s, also stimulated by takeovers. With this, Unilin became number one in both the Netherlands and France in the insulating roof elements’ sector. With the takeover of Opstalan in 2005, we became the largest producer of insulating roof elements in Europe.
Quickly, we became a European leader in insulation panels. Thanks to the takeover of Opstalan we gained our own, admittedly modest, production line. In 2009, we invested in our first high-speed line and launched the production in Desselgem.
It was not without risk, because it was a time of financial crisis. But it was a lucky strike. The factory came at the perfect time, just as the general public began turning their attention to sustainability and insulation.
Today, Unilin is number two on the European insulation panel market. And the story does not stop there: our efforts towards further growth continue. A crucial element in this journey is our sustainability strategy. Jorrit Gillijns is product development & innovation manager within Unilin Insulation: “Thanks to our insulation products we have been helping our customers to save energy for years. But we want to do more. Circularity and climate neutrality, that’s our focus.”
Climate-neutral is our goal
“For several years we have been considering how we could make our products even more sustainable, together with the factories in which we do our manufacturing. Our objective? To make our insulation products in climate-neutral factories. That means 90% less emissions in scope 1 and 2. We will achieve that by swapping fossil fuels for renewable energy. Meanwhile, our roofs already accommodate 14,551 solar panels, and the two wind turbines in Feluy currently cater for 70% of our direct electricity consumption in the factory. Our efforts also extend to energy efficiency, for example, by switching to LED lighting.”
Step by step towards circular raw materials
When it comes to circularity there are great ambitions: we want to use 30% circular raw materials in our production process. “This concerns both recycled raw materials, such as PU waste, and biobased raw materials. A number of R&D projects are now underway and we have devised steps to reach 30% circular raw materials.”
Chemical recycling ahead
The real challenge ahead for Insulation is the recycling of PU panels. But Insulation is setting its sights high. Jorrit: “We have ambitious targets at Unilin. By 2030, Unilin aims to reduce the scope 3 CO2 emissions by 12.5%. To make a big difference within Insulation we aim to recycle 70% of our PU waste. Currently, panels that are no longer useful or discarded on site are generally incinerated, which is naturally not a good thing in terms of emissions. In the future, we wish to perform chemical recycling. Then we can restore the panels to their basic raw materials, which can then be reused for new products. Together with over 20 partners we are participating in the European Circular Foam project, which is searching for a solution for chemical recycling. The objective is to achieve an annual saving of around 2.9 million tons of CO2 in Europe as from 2040. It is a hunt with plenty of ups and downs, because, being a plastic, PU is designed to last as long as possible (laughs). That makes it even harder to break down.”
The recycling of insulation panels is the project ahead, and Jorrit sounds ambitious. “We are developing a team to supervise all sustainability projects and dive deep into the matter, right down to molecular level”, he confirms confidently.