New technologies, products and industry projects show signs of progress in the quest to advance composites recycling – and make it profitable.

In homes and offices throughout the world, recycling bins are ubiquitous. The concept of recycling has become so deeply engrained in society that no matter what you need to discard, chances are you can recycle it. That is, unless you’re looking to recycle glass or carbon fiber composites.

“Everybody knows you recycle aluminum cans, right? You don’t even think about it,” says Ed Pilpel, senior advisor at PolyOne Advanced Composites and chairman of ACMA’s Green Composites Council (GCC) Recycling Committee. “There’s a bin for it. There’s a bin for paper and [other] kinds of recycling. If we ever get to the point where there’s a recycling bin for composites, then we know we have achieved success.”

The industry isn’t quite there yet, but according to Pilpel and others, there has been significant progress over the past few years. Recycled CFRP has made major strides recently, and while GFRP recycling has some catching up to do, Pilpel is optimistic. That’s because in all corners of the world, businesses are developing and investing in novel recycling technology and establishing the business case for both carbon fiber and glass fiber composite recycling. All are working toward answering the million dollar question: How can we make recycling composites profitable?

The Business Proposal

According to Pilpel, the business case for recycling composites has been a project many years in the making. When the GCC Recycling Committee was formed in 2011, the industry’s rate of recycling was approximately 1 to 2 percent. Pilpel was making presentations around the country about what he calls the “recycling puzzle” and the need to solve it, but the resources to do so weren’t readily available. That was, until a newly-minted composites institute with the resources to tackle the puzzle came into the picture. In June 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched IACMI-The Composites Institute – a $259 million program for manufacturing innovation. A few months later, ACMA and IACMI agreed to collaborate on a wide range of topics, including recycling.

“One of the big things we didn’t expect was IACMI to show up and the DOE to get involved this way, because one of our concerns was how is government going to deal with composites recycling?” recalls Pilpel.

IACMI is currently reviewing ACMA’s proposal to study and test CHZ Technologies’ ThermolyzerTM technology, which recycles all liquids, tars and oils from composite materials and converts them into clean synthetic gases. By working with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Pilpel and the Recycling Committee learned that industries like rubber find profit through recycling by separating their various elements. Pilpel says the composites industry can draw inspiration from rubber companies who separate the two main components of tires: the nylon core and steel cords. In FRP, the two main components you can separate are the fiber and the polymer matrix.