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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

The Circular Economy and Sustainability

This week I want to delve more deeply into the issue of sustainability of composites and why it is so important to the future of the composite materials industry. To date I have talked about sustainable fibers, sustainable resins, design for sustainability, design for recyclability, and quite a bit about bio-based or natural fibers, resins, and composites. While all of these are very important aspects of the overall effort toward building a sustainable composite material economy, the entire effort of sustainability of composites revolves around the development of a truly circular economy and the mindset in the industry that whatever they design and build using composite materials will at the end of its usefulness need to be taken apart and its constituents reused to make more composites.

Since the businesses and companies – both large and small – that make up the composites industry are each in it to make a profit, there must be a cost incentive and profit motive in the industry for developing and maintaining this circular economy. While it is wonderful that researchers and even some companies are working independently on all of the technologies required to develop the circular economy of composites, there is no coalesced effort – at least in the U.S. – to band together through a single organization to pursue Government support for this effort.

The good news for the rest of the world is that it seems that Western Europe has such an organization – the European Composites Industry Association (EUCIA). What I want to do in this post, then, is to describe the model that the EUCIA is following in Europe to build a circular economy, and suggest a program that would work for the Composites Industry here in the U.S. and also work with the U.S. Government.

EUCIA is headquartered in Brussels and it “represents the national composites associations as well as industry specific sector groups at the EU level.” Effectively it is the composites industry and academia association for all of Western Europe. They guide the European Commission on trade policy, regulations for their manufacture and use, and also policy issues that are centered around sustainability of composites and the European composites industry. They wrote regulations for formaldehyde and styrene emissions from polyester resin manufacture and use that were adopted across Europe. They helped the European Commission to their investigation into the dumping of cheap Chinese glass fiber precursors onto the European market and got the Commission to impose tariffs on specific companies. And they have proposed a model for sustainability of composites that Europe is attempting to put into place. While they are starting with development of recycling technologies, they have advocated a circular economy very much like what is pictured above.

This circular model is based largely on bio-based fibers and resins – in other words, natural fibers and natural resins. And, to make the economy truly circular, there are also researchers that are working on bio-based thermoset polymers that can be reasonably easily disassociated in to their original liquid components. This is sort of the holy grail of making the economy of composites truly circular. If the formulations and processes for accomplishing this magic can be made to be profitable on an industrial scale for the composite materials industry, they will be adopted very quickly.

And, as usual, we are talking about the “valley of death” here. I have talked about this before when it comes to development of new technologies for the Department of Defense here in the U.S.. When a technology makes it to a Technology Readiness Level of 5 or so, which means that it is validated in an industrial environment, the funding for taking any technology past this level to demonstration in an industrial environment – especially for something that is expensive to scale up – is usually rather difficult to obtain. Most of the successful technologies have had their transition from TRL 5 to TRL 6 or even 7 (Production ready and demonstrated) or 8 (actual Production) have had to rely on Governmental funding. This is where Europe is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to composites technology development. The Governments of Europe are involved in EUCIA to assist in obtaining funding to take technologies from demonstration in a lab all the way to production.

The U.S. Government is also working in this realm. A case in point is the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program. This program is of course dominated by the Department of Defense, not only because they have the largest R&D budget of any department in the Federal Government, but also because the needs of the DoD for new and innovative weapon systems is so great.

There is hope in the U.S. however, since the EPA, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, as well as the current Administration, all understand that at some point we are going to run out of fossil fuels and need desperately to develop the technologies that will wean us away from extracting hydrocarbons from the earth to use as fuel and industrial raw materials. There is both a societal need as well as an economic need to develop technologies, processes, and industrial practices that can be sustained far into the future.


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