Technology improvements and new markets for recycled fibers could spur its growth.

Just two years ago, the recycling of composite materials was an aspirational goal but not a commercial reality, according to Dan Coughlin, ACMA’s vice president of composites market development. But thanks to the concerted efforts of ACMA members and partners from around the world, the situation is much different today. The recycling of carbon fiber composites has become a reality, and the industry is actively pursuing new glass fiber recycling technologies.

For ACMA members, there are several incentives to jumpstarting the composites recycling industry in the United States. The country’s composites industry is taking the lead to develop and commercialize recycling technology. This industry-led model stands in contrast to regulations and mandates in other regions of the world, such as Europe. The composites industry also is responding to the needs of its customers, such as aircraft manufacturers and automotive OEMs, who need cost-effective and sustainable methods for handling their scrap materials and end-of-life composite parts.

Establishing a Recycling Infrastructure

Building a viable composites recycling system from scratch is a complex process, because many different things have to occur within the same general time frame. First, companies have to solve the technical challenges of extracting the different types of fibers during the recycling process. To date, they’ve made more progress with carbon fibers than with glass fibers due to the relatively high value of recovered carbon fibers.

Then, to reach the operational scale required for commercially viable operations, companies will have to identify a consistent source of composite scrap material. They may have to adapt the recycling technology according to the type of material they’re recycling – carbon fiber or glass fiber, prepreg scrap, trim waste from a cured composite or cured composite.

“Polymer types are different surrounding glass fiber versus carbon fiber, so the reclaiming process conditions may vary,” observes Soydan Ozcan, senior R&D scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) and IACMI composite recycling lead. The industry will have to determine, among other things, if a single process can reclaim both types of fiber effectively and if different resins and fibers will react differently to the recycling process.

Companies that provide composites scrap for recycling feedstock will have to be prepared to provide a thorough breakdown of their content. That will require the creation of specifications for such materials, says David Wagger, chief scientist/director of environmental management at the ‎Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. The organization has been helping ACMA and its partners assess what’s needed for successful composites recycling.