Carbon Fibre Industry: A Recycling Challenge

The Product

Carbon Fibre (CF) has been used in various industries for many years now. There’s not to question as to why it has become so popular; it’s composite results in a very strong, ultra-light material that is heavily used in many industries, specifically aeronautic, automotive, and sporting goods.

CF has allowed numerous advancements in key performance sectors, which has transformed it into the highest standard possible. The material is ideal, almost perfect. Unfortunately, there is only one glaring obstacle thing it has yet to overcome: the recycling process.

Carbon fibre is a complex material, yet simple to produce. The downside of using this material is the fact that it’s heavy on chemicals, resins and composite, making the mix difficult to recycle. Therefore, building a closed loop system that utilizes recycled carbon fibre byproduct in new products is becoming a challenge, especially without a scalable recycling solution.  


The Market

As carbon fibre becomes cheaper, its popularity also increases, putting its market sales at $75B worldwide in 2015. It is currently very complicated to recycle or reuse carbon as it is fabricated for extreme durability and for a very specific purpose within a defined application. As more industries are refocusing their supply chain and manufacturing processes on the 4 R’s of sustainability (Repurpose, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine), carbon fibre needs a system to be recycled and reused as a raw material within other applications to avoid landfills.   

Global Carbon Fiber Composites Supply Chain Competitiveness Analysis

Sujit Das, Josh Warren, and Devin West 

Energy and Transportation Science Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Susan M. Schexnayder 

An extensive report by the University of Tennessee indicates that the carbon fibre market has rapidly grown in the past few years (See Table 1). The primary sectors using carbon fibre are; wind, aerospace, automotive and sporting goods. The market is clearly projected to demand more of this material due to its capabilities and characteristics. As the demand grows, alternatives to reuse and recycle the material must be developed to prevent another uncontrolled industrial waste stream.

The continued use of this material while achieving supply chain waste reduction demands an effective solution. Not only is it expensive for companies to dispose of the material, but it is also an environmental threat if an excess of the produced carbon fibre composite ends up in landfills. This material is built to last, and while this is one of its key properties, it results in an indestructible material that, like plastic, threatens the health of our oceans.


Recycling Initiatives

Many recycling initiatives have been put in place with the vision of reusing virgin CF. In the aviation industry, Boeing has already started initiatives to recycle carbon fibre from decommissioned aircrafts to make non-structural parts in new airplanes. In the same way, several bicycle manufacturers are becoming burdened with warranties and retired carbon frames. Very few recycling options are available to the cycling industry and nothing has been formalized across the industry. This has created a situation where companies either continue to search for a solution or simply opt to pay for landfill fees. An accessible and smart recycling program for carbon fibre thus remains a challenge for industry and business alike.  

To solve the issue, companies would like to move towards a backcasting approach. With exception of a few companies, manufacturers today are using materials for the “usage” phase of a product, which is only one phase out of four. Implementing a backcasting approach would force companies to treat the material as one that can be reused for other products during its lifetime, avoid linear economies, and move towards a circular economy model instead.

We are confident that technology will continue to evolve and CF recycling solutions will be developed. For that to happen, companies need to create a market for recycled carbon fibre which retains 95% of its original strength while making it usable for application in lightweight material that does not require 100% material strength.

If your company is using carbon fibre or your organization is dealing with decommissioned products using carbon fibre, we’d love to help you finding a responsible disposal solution.