3/23/2020 | 3 MINUTE READ

Sustainability matters: Now, not just in the future

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Public opinion on plastics will sharpen the focus on sustainability in composites manufacturing.

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recycled carbon fiber ELG Carbon Fibre

Recycled and hybrid carbon fiber nonwovens. Source | ELG Carbon Fibre Ltd.

 

Over the past several years, we’ve seen increasing opposition to things made of polymers, or plastics. Driven by real concerns with ocean and ground pollution, municipalities, states and countries are enacting bans on single-use plastic bags, straws and other items, including packaging.

It’s a proven fact that plastics provide exceptional benefits such as extending the shelf lives of food and pharmaceuticals, at protecting against bacterial infection, and being more durable than paper or glass against damage. However, because of this durability, unless properly disposed of or recycled, they risk winding up in places they shouldn’t, like the ocean. There’s no question we need to do better, but banning plastics will just bring back the problems they have solved.

As part of the “plastics community” (I have been a member of the Society of Plastics Engineers [SPE, Danbury, Conn., U.S.] since 1992), the increasing amount of negative press and efforts to ban plastics certainly draws my attention. And it leads to some interesting consumer behavior. I recently read an article written by someone attempting to remove all plastic from their lives — not just single-use packaging such as toothpaste tubes and shampoo bottles, but also reusable plastic dinnerware and storage containers. I know I have Tupperware that is more than 20 years old and still functioning perfectly — and much more durable than china plates and glass jars. I’ll keep using them until I’m gone, I figure. Given the quantity of polymers in the fibers we have in our clothing, the aesthetic interiors in our cars and the housings of our televisions and other electronics, it seems far-fetched to move back to materials used 50 years ago.

In so many ways, composites are more environmentally friendly than traditional materials.

For those of us in the composites industry, we’ve had it relatively easy, with only minimal pressure to recover and reuse manufacturing waste and end-of-life products. Sure, we’ve seen certain legislation enacted or proposed, but the effects haven’t really hit home yet. We know our products enable reduced fuel consumption due to the ability to lightweight transportation and protect against fuel leaks in underground storage tanks. Composites in infrastructure extend the lives of roads, bridges and buildings, reducing long-term concrete production, which uses lots of water and emits large amounts of carbon dioxide. And the largest user of composite materials, the wind energy industry, overcomes the total embodied energy to construct a turbine in the first month of operation, then produces emission-free electricity for another 20 years. In so many ways, composites are more environmentally friendly than traditional materials.

Our time “flying under the radar” with the public at large when it comes to disposal and recycling may be over. Last month, in my column about the seemingly unstoppable growth of the wind industry, I mentioned end-of-life disposal as a looming issue not only for decommissioned blades, but also for end-of-life composite aircraft and automobiles. A week after filing that column with CW (and several weeks before publication), a Feb. 5 article from Bloomberg featured a photo of a large pile of used wind blades covered with dirt in a Wyoming landfill, highlighting this particular issue. The article cited how difficult  it is to recycle the blades, a true testament to the strength and durability attributes that make them ideal for the application. Since then, other publications and newspapers have picked up on the story — and now the public is much more aware due to this negative press.

Which makes all the efforts our industry has undertaken the last five to 10 years to develop ways to recycle composites even more important. While I don’t need to go into the various technologies that have emerged to recycle composite waste and composite parts — there has been significant coverage of that in recent issues of CompositesWorld, including an overview of projects funded under the IACMI umbrella — it is important to stress the urgency to do more than just R&D in this topic, or to produce pilot quantities for evaluation. We must scale these solutions not only to accommodate the forthcoming volumes of materials, but also to achieve the needed economies to produce recycled products that are cost-effective to use in other products.

This will take considerable investment, and it will take commitment not only from suppliers of the materials into these recycling facilities, but also innovators finding ways to employ the recovered products, which has been a problem to date. It will also take a collective effort to shout these successes to the press outside of our composites community. By doing so, we can assure the public that composites are indeed the most sustainable solution.


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