Composite Waste: Regulations & Solutions

Composite waste disposal poses significant challenges in the UK and Europe, as there are relatively few options compared with the sheer volume of waste generated by industry.

Composites are used in many different sectors such as construction, aerospace, marine, automotive and renewable energy, to name but a few.

Image of composite waste travelling down a conveyor belt.

© jantsarik / Shutterstock

Materials such as carbon fibre, reinforced polymers and fibreglass are prevalent in many applications, as they are lightweight, durable and largely damage resistant. However, their increasing use has led to a rise in the amount of composite waste.

Sadly, the improper disposal of this type of material can result in environmental damage and puts more pressure on landfill sites. Industries reliant on the use of composites are being encouraged to support sustainability initiatives and reduce their environmental impact.

 

Challenges of composite waste disposal

Scientists estimate that by 2050, the wind turbine and aircraft industries alone will produce 840,300 tonnes of glass fibre and carbon composite waste per year. Unfortunately, the global capacity for recycling composite waste isn’t keeping pace, as it stands at less than 100,000 tonnes per year.

Experts say disposing of this type of waste presents a unique challenge, due to the longevity of the fibres and resins it contains – they can take thousands of years to break down fully.

In addition, some contain toxic substances that can be released into groundwater and soil when disposed of improperly. This poses environmental risks for the future and can adversely impact people living nearby.

 

Glass fibre waste

Producing fibre glass insulation is a high-temperature process carried out on a production line. It consists of preparing molten glass and forming the fibres into a mat, cooling it and then backing, cutting and packaging it ready for shipping.

The options for disposing of the waste include possible in-house recycling, such as grinding it down into a fine filler. However, this may not be economically viable.

A handful of options are available, such as the US company Ecowolf, of Florida, providing machinery to incorporate reground glass fibre waste into spray-up processes.

Cement kiln recycling combines composite offcuts and shredded parts with other waste to produce new products. Inorganic glass and filler become cement feedstock and resin can be burned for energy.

 

Carbon fibre

Carbon fibre sheets have multiple uses including sporting equipment, décor and interior design, automotive parts, military equipment and aerospace components.

Composite waste must be disposed of with extreme care – it isn’t recommended to incinerate this type of waste under any circumstances due to the material properties of carbon fibre. This is due to a risk of the defibrillation and oxidation of the carbon fibres, creating smaller diameter fibres that could be carcinogenic in the emissions.

Carbon fibres can also cause short-circuiting in electric flue gas filters in the incinerator. Carbon fibre composite waste is often sent to landfill, but more sustainable disposal methods are needed.

The world’s first commercial recycler of carbon fibre was West Midlands-based Gen 2 Carbon, founded in 2003. They will dry the fibre to convert it into a range of Carbiso products, such as milled and chopped fibre and non-woven mats.

Currently, other products made from recycled carbon fibre are under development, including injection moulding compounds.

 

Silicone

Recycling facilities are available in some areas of the UK for silicone waste. In Swansea, Techlan recycles used silicone release paper using an innovative new process.

Founded in 2009, the company cleans the release paper from prepreg manufacturing and reuses it for various applications in different markets.

If you’re a UK company who uses silicone release paper during your processes, having waste recycled can be a cost-effective alternative to other disposal methods.

Using recycled silicone paper in manufacturing also provides enhanced environmental benefits compared with virgin materials, as it protects natural resources.

Techlan will also buy surplus prime-grade silicone materials, or those that have been rejected for quality purposes.

 

Polymer

Polymer film packaging for food and other items can be recycled, so if your business creates bulk loads, the waste doesn’t have to be dumped at landfill. However, sturdier composite materials, such as reinforced polymers, can’t be processed in the same way as other plastics at a regular recycling centre.

This type of material achieves an optimum balance of flexibility, strength and lightness, making it popular in the wind energy sector. However, as the need for sustainable energy grows, composite waste is now starting to become a problem.

According to a study by Wind Europe, blade waste alone from decommissioned wind turbines will weigh between 40,000 and 60,000 tonnes, accounting for 10% of Europe’s total composite waste materials by 2025.

Governments are doing what they can to alleviate the problems by using recycling legislation, such as the EU Waste Framework Directive and the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations.

In the Netherlands, sending composite waste to landfill is banned “in principle” and recycling is the preferred means of disposal. However, cost is a factor and if the recycling cost exceeds 200 euros per tonne, this is an exception to the law.

 

Protecting health and the environment

As with every waste disposal issue, legislation is aimed at protecting public health and the environment. Working with composite materials is a high-risk environment for employees and the COSHH law in the UK requires stringent measures to be put in place to protect their health.

This includes using composite dust extraction, based on the principle of drawing hazardous dusts down through a downdraught bench into integral filters. The dust can be captured without operator intervention or adjustment, creating a safer environment for the workforce and minimising the risks of respiratory problems in later life.

Currently, the collected waste from composites can be sent to landfill, incinerated in some cases, recycled, repurposed and reused. However, not all of this is possible throughout the whole of the UK and environmental campaigners are liaising with industry chiefs to try and improve the disposal situation.

Several companies now exist to offer new end-of-life options for composites. While these materials can be challenging to recycle, the industry is continuing to liaise with scientists to find ways of making production more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

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