In 2011, when the ACMA Green Composites Council (GCC) formed a recycling subcommittee, the industry’s rate of recycling was approximately one to two percent. Five years later, when the subcommittee began discussing recycling goals with the Department of Energy and IACMI – The Composites Institute, those organizations suggested a goal of 80 percent recycling within five years.

While that number is very optimistic, CAMX’s Thursday morning session “Overview of Composites Recycling” provided a look at what the industry is doing to encourage composites recycling and move it forward as a sustainable business. The presenters were Ed Pilpel, president of Polystrand (recently acquired by PolyOne) and chair of the GCC recycling subcommittee, and Dave Hartman, scientist and program manager at Owens Corning.

“One of the big hurdles was convincing our own industry that we need to recycle,” said Pilpel. The committee realized that making a good business case for recycling – showing companies how they could benefit from it economically – could be a powerful persuader. In addition, the industry needs to show that it is making progress toward recycling to dissuade the federal government from mandating it.   European composites manufacturers have found it costly to comply with recycling regulations.

The composites industry is partnering with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (IRSI) in these efforts. ISRI members have decades of experience in materials recycling, and they see composites recycling as an opportunity to grow their businesses.

The recycling subcommittee is collaborating with several companies and organizations on a composites recycling proposal to present to IACMI. It would involve testing the Thermolyzer™ technology, which uses multiple reactors and in-line scrubbers to recycle all liquids, tars and oils from the composite materials and convert them into clean synthetic gas. The Thermolyzer technology, already used in the e-waste industry, is a self-sustaining, clean process that has a record of low maintenance and good operational performance. The tests would involve both fiberglass and carbon fibers.

Hartman said the pilot program seeks to answer both technology and business questions, including the following:

  • Can the Thermolyzer recover 70 percent of composite matrix energy as synthetic gas?
  • Can it also recover fiber/filler value?
  • Can it handle multiple waste streams in the same process?
  • Is the technology robust enough for wind, automotive and industrial needs?
  • Can it perform at sufficient scale for 80 percent recycle/reuse in five years?
  • Can the industry scale up to meet regulatory needs and end user needs of wind farm decommissioning, OEM automotive targets and other sustainable industrial growth?

The technology aspect of the study will include four-ton per day scale trials with GE Renewables and Continental Structural Plastics providing the composite waste for testing. On the business side, the test will compare three different scenarios for handling composite waste. The first will be reusing it at a wind farm site in the cement base foundation of a turbine. The second will be bulk shipping the waste to reuse at a regional conversion site for an application. The third will be shipping it to a regional thermal energy and fiber recovery site.