Increasing awareness of the use-phase sustainability benefits of composite products supports the industry advancing toward a circular economy and the consequent reduction of certain business risks.

Reducing the Risks of a Linear Economy

According to a widely accepted analysis advanced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, our national economy is dominated by a linear model of production and consumption, in which goods are manufactured from raw materials, sold, used and then discarded as waste. By contrast a circular economy is designed to be restorative and regenerative and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value.

The linear economy is under increasing challenge in several ways:

  • Material recycling and waste-based energy recovery captures only a small fraction of the original raw material value, and most of the value of extracted materials is simply thrown away after their initial use.
  • A linear system increases the exposure of companies to the risks of volatile resource prices and supply disruptions, which increase uncertainty and discourage businesses from investing.
  • A linear economy exposes companies to the risk of regulations to curtail and price negative environmental and social impacts.
  • Shareholders and lenders, employees and consumers are ready to “deselect” companies failing to respond to the climate change and other environmental and social challenges, and citizens in a growing number of states and localities are voicing the same expectations of their governments, public services and utilities.

Conversely, in a circular economy the only inputs to the system are from renewable sources, and the only outputs are the value of the products enjoyed by society. (A perfectly circular composites industry is illustrated in Figure 2.) Of course, perfect circularity is not a necessary or practical objective. But the less circular our industry’s economy is, the more likely it is to face the business challenges described above.

When we refer to a composites industry economy, we are talking about the flow of economic value through the industry, from extraction of raw materials to final disposal of materials and products. Moving toward a circular economy means preserving the value of raw materials and products as long as possible by lengthening the time that they provide useful service and repurposing them when they no longer fulfil their original function or recycling them into high-value products.

The following approaches could be used by composites manufacturers to increase circularity and reduce business risks:

  • Promote the use of durable and long-lasting composites to increase the economic value obtained from the raw materials and energy used to produce an end-use product.
  • Recover and recycle plant waste and end-of-life products into materials used to produce new composite products or convert the waste into materials used as high-value inputs by another industry.
  • Work with suppliers to identify materials and energy sources derived from renewable resources.
  • Reduce the use of potentially toxic materials.

Composite products already provide increased durability, resilience and longevity. An increased awareness of the sustainability benefits of composite products during use may drive market growth more than quantitative data from LCAs and may be needed to avoid imposition of taxes, regulations or other government policies aimed at the mishandling of non-durable plastic products like packaging.

Composites Recycling

Recovering the resins and reinforcement fibers from end-of-life composites and using them to manufacture new composite products or as high-value inputs to other processes would increase the lifecycle value of raw materials, reduce reliance on limited sources of non-renewable resources and reduce the amount of disposed waste.