Sustainability has become a watchword for businesses in the 2020s. Consumers want the companies they deal with to use sustainable practices, while governments are adopting policies holding corporations responsible for their products’ environmental impact from manufacturing through end of use.

The composites industry is responding to the changed marketplace. “For a long time, people were focused on all the great benefits that composites bring during their lifetime. There was not a great deal of attention focused on what you do with them at the end of life,” says Malcolm Forsyth, sustainability manager for Composites UK, a British trade association. Those benefits are no longer the only focus. “People are starting to ask a lot more questions about using recycled materials, particularly in Europe. … We need to start recovering and moving to a more circular life cycle model rather than a linear one.”

In the last few years, composite manufacturers and suppliers, universities, research institutes and organizations like ACMA, the European Composites Industry Association (EuCIA) and Composites UK have been working together to address these challenges.

Materials Matter

There are three phases in a composite’s life cycle: the making, the use and the end of use. Much of the emphasis today is on the last phase, particularly recycling.

“That is understandable, but it may overshadow the very positive effect of composites, especially in the use phase,” says Ben Drogt, founder of BiinC, which assists companies in developing innovative and sustainable solutions. “Composites are historically used because of their light weight and their high durability, providing a long life with minimal maintenance. Both are key elements for sustainable materials.” He notes that wind energy would not be possible at the current scale without composites, nor would the reduction of fuel usage in aircraft and land vehicles.

During the use phase, the durability of composites is a plus; a small composite bridge, for example, can be moved to another spot if it’s no longer needed in its original location. The problem comes when no one wants a 50-year-old fiberglass boat or when turbine blades reach end of use. Researchers are now exploring a variety of technologies for recycling and reusing these composites. One commercially feasible solution is to use composite waste as raw material in cement production, as is being done by Neowa GmbH and Holcim in Germany. In the U.S., the Rhode Island Fiberglass Vessel Recycling Program has been launched by Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Rhode Island Marine Trade Association to dismantle and reprocess FRP boat hulls into cement.