We work with clients in a variety of industries ranging from sporting goods to aerospace. So when we sell a carbon fiber block or tube, we don't necessarily know what that material will ultimately be used for. What we do know is that some of the material will ultimately end up as waste – waste that we hope will be recycled.
Despite composites having been around since the 1950s, recycling has been somewhat of a holy grail for us. Our industry has long believed that finding a way to effectively recycle composite waste, including carbon fiber waste, could reduce the overall cost of composite products while also putting less on our nation's landfills.
Recycling has been elusive to say the least. But industry efforts are starting to pay off. Gradually, new companies specializing in cost-effective recycling are cropping up around the nation. We are also seeing new products made with recycled composites come to market. Take the carbon fiber park bench, for example.
Replacing Wood with Recycled Carbon Fiber
Port Angeles, Washington will become the first American municipality to purchase carbon fiber park benches made from recycled aerospace composites processed by a technology center located in the city. All the city's wooden benches will be replaced with carbon fiber alternatives. These are benches found in parks, at bus stops, and a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces.
The city has chosen the carbon fiber benches to ultimately cut costs and reduce maintenance. Unlike wood, carbon fiber does not rot. It is not harmed by insects, animals, weather, or even the challenging marine environment the city is known for. The icing on the cake is the fact that the carbon fiber benches will need very little maintenance to keep them looking like new. A simple cleaning every now and again will be sufficient.
So where does the recycled aerospace material come from? Some of it is waste produced during the manufacturing and fabricating processes. Other material comes from used carbon fiber parts that have been replaced for one reason or another. Finally, some of it comes from parts and equipment that have simply reached the end of life.
To promote the new benches and help raise money to acquire them, Port Angeles has created the Adopt-A-Bench program. Both individuals and businesses can purchase the opportunity to utilize the space on a ceramic plaque built into the back of the bench for advertising or memorializing.
The Start of Something Big
What Port Angeles is doing with new benches made from recycled carbon fiber may not seem like much to people not involved in our industry. But to us, it is big. In fact, it could be the start of something a lot bigger.
Recycling carbon fiber has been a problem for our industry for a number of reasons. First, recycling is very expensive due to the amount of energy needed to separate the carbon fiber material from contaminants. Second, recycled carbon fiber is not as strong as a first-generation product. It is more than strong enough for things like park benches, but not strong enough to be used to manufacture new fuselage sections for commercial aircraft.
What they are doing in Port Angeles shows that there are possibilities waiting to be tapped. Carbon fiber block, tubing, sheeting, and prepregs can all be recycled one way or another. It is just a matter of finding a cost-effective way to do so. They have done it in Washington, they are doing it in Tennessee, and we expect to see more of it in other locations in the coming months and years.