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Bringing circular economy practices to glass and carbon fibre composites

Composite materials are widely used across multiple industries, yet are difficult to recycle. The EU-funded FiberEUse project developed new solutions to reuse composites and recover their residual properties. The developments could make these structural materials more cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

©René Notenbomer #491287131 source: 2023

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Glass and carbon fibre reinforced plastics are an advanced class of materials widely used across a range of industries. Strong and lightweight, and resistant to corrosion, they are increasingly used to replace metal parts. You can find them in everything from wind turbine blades to skyscrapers, aircraft wings, sports equipment and, unfortunately, landfills.

That’s because recycling these materials at the end of their life is a complex endeavour. The blend of fibres and resin is difficult to separate, meaning many of these products end up either dumped or reused in low-grade applications.

In the EU-funded FiberEUse project, a consortium of researchers, institutions and manufacturers across Europe developed new techniques for recycling composites with a cross-sectoral approach.

“Maybe you cannot reuse the material in the same application,” says Marcello Colledani, FiberEUse project coordinator and associate professor at the Mechanical Engineering Department of the Polytechnic University of Milan, Italy. “But you can still keep some of the residual properties of the material.”

“A product is more meaningful than many words,” remarks Colledani, holding up a pair of skis created by sports equipment maker Head, one of the FiberEUse partners. These are the first-ever skis created with a core made of recycled glass fibre composites.

A range of new recycling techniques

From the very beginning, FiberEUse was proposing a new way to approach the recycling industry – exploiting the innovative demand-driven concept.

Currently, end-of-life products are recycled and, after that, other actors attempt to understand what to do with the materials obtained, an intrinsically ‘push’ methodology, explains Colledani. What the FiberEUse project proposed is a more ‘pull-oriented’ approach.

“What we’re trying to do is reverse this process,” he adds, “where the specifications and requirements of recycling should come from the scenario in which the product will be reused. That’s what we tried to formalise and demonstrate in FiberEUse.”

The FiberEUse team developed and trialled three new routes, based on three different approaches, for the treatment of end-of-life glass and carbon fibre composites.

The first was a new method to mechanically shred the materials. This process creates granules, which can be mixed with virgin resin and fibres to create new products. The team produced three demonstrators with this technique: the skis from Head, shower trays from Novellini, and a wide range of design products, in partnership with designaustria. The FiberEUse team also established a new start-up based around this innovation, called FiberEUse Tech.

The second solution was based on thermochemical recycling, where end-of-life products are treated at temperatures between 400 and 600 °C in a controlled atmosphere. This innovative technology can free the fibres without damaging the resin, meaning both can be recovered, offsetting the high environmental impact and financial costs of this kind of treatment.

The third solution exploited the concept of remanufacturing, facilitating disassembly, inspection, repair and reuse of parts and components. Two German automotive companies EDAG and Invent developed new modular car parts. During FiberEUse, they designed an innovative car platform and new seats, and a new patented reversible adhesive, meaning parts of the car can be easily repaired and replaced.

Continuing the digital legacy

One of the challenges of the project was to open the market to new recycled composite products. Holonix, one FiberEUse partner, created an online platform to match suppliers of composite waste with end users of recycled materials, and a digital tool to design based on these materials.

“This was really targeting the design industry, but also everyday citizens,” says Colledani. “So these inventors, creative people, could be more attracted by the properties of these materials.”

These open-source online tools, together with other digital services, are currently being further developed in DigiPrime, a new EU-funded project.

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: Italy
Project participants:
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 11 943 964
EU Contribution
€ 9 793 549
Project duration

See also

More information about project FiberEUse

All success stories