Mar 20, 2022

What is virtuous recycling?

What is virtuous recycling?

In this day and age, recycling has become part of our collective consciousness. The regulations in this field are being reinforced, and the channels are organized. However, the spectrum of recycling is wide, and some methods are more virtuous than others. Let us look at this reality, which is less well known to the general public, with the example of carbon fiber.

 

Recycling and its limits

First of all, let’s recall the essence of recycling. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines recycling as “collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.”

 

While recycling is a significant challenge for the planet, some industries and their processes still face limitations. This can take several forms:

Separation of materials

Some elements can be challenging to separate from recovering them. Therefore, it is sometimes cheaper to buy these materials as “new”. This is the case with electronic products, for example.

Material loss

As with any process, each recycling cycle results in material loss.

Loss of quality

Some recycled materials also lose quality. Thus, some materials are recycled into new products of lower quality.

Environmental impact

The recycling process will also impact the environment regarding energy consumption, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Export of waste

Although some of our waste is recycled locally, another waste is exported, often under obscure conditions.

 

While all recycling channels contribute to the circular economy, it seems clear that some are more responsible and efficient, and profitable than others. Due to their heterogeneous nature, composite materials are subject to even more complex recycling, as is the case with carbon fiber composites, also known as carbon fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP).

 

CFRP Carbon fiber reinforced polymers

CFRP Carbon fiber reinforced polymers

 

The Case of Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber composites are generally recycled via three traditional methods when they are not buried in the ground or incinerated. These are solvolysis, thermolysis, and fluidized bed processes. However, these solutions are not yet wholly virtuous because of their costs, low reuse of recyclates, and impact on the environment.

For example, the solvolysis process, which is still a chemical recycling process, can use dangerous solvents that impact the environment. The fluidized bed process, which is based on incineration, can also emit toxic gases that are polluting and harmful to health.

Based on this observation, Fairmat has devised a virtuous solution for recycling carbon fiber composite, which gives life to a new high-performance, recycled, and recyclable material. To achieve this, the start-up relies on transforming waste into chips. By combining Artificial Intelligence and robotization, the carbon fiber is cut so that it does not cause any material degradation. The plates of this new material are then produced by cold mechanical action. This process is not only energy efficient but also does not pose any risk of pollution or health hazards. At the end of this process, no less than 41 Kg of CO2 emissions is avoided per kg of recycled carbon fiber composite.

Recycling streams should be evaluated in terms of environmental impacts and practical feasibility to ensure their viability, whether for carbon fiber composite or any other material or product.