Today many things are made from fiberglass, from automotive parts to boats, and bathtubs to wind turbine blades. Fiberglass is lightweight and strong, it is resistant to impact and is waterproof. It does not rot and can be repaired relatively easily, but recycling fiberglass, can it be done?
While the short answer is yes, there is more to it than that. Shredding or grinding the fiberglass destroys many of the glass fibers, reducing their size, strength, and therefore the usefulness for future applications. It’s not as simple as recycling other plastics because of the glass fiber content.
The problems of fiberglass
The equipment used to recycle fiberglass without damaging the glass fibers is expensive and the demand for recycled fiberglass isn’t high. But with the increase of products made from fiberglass, it is becoming a larger source of waste that must be dealt with. In 2018, the glass fiber to composites market reached 2.5 billion pounds (1.13 billion KG) and is expected to reach 3 billion pounds in 2024.
For many years, yachts and pleasure craft were designed and built without considering disposal requirements at their end of life. So for decades, landfill and incineration have been the two popular disposal methods used by composite industries. Increasing environmental awareness drives us to identify a sustainable disposal method and provide a solution to prevent the cumulating waste.
Wind turbine blades made from fiberglass have a lifespan of approximately 20 years. Most manufacturers only warranty the blades for 20 years, so there isn’t much reason to run them longer as they become an insurance risk. This means that many of the first wind turbines are now obsolete and are being replaced by new, more efficient wind turbines. Many of the older blades suffer from delamination on the leading edge from the abrasion of dust in the air. Most of the blades spin with the tip’s speed of around 150 mph so a little dust can do a lot of damage. Interestingly, most wind turbines are shown to pay for themselves in 8 months to 1 year, leaving about19 years of profit.
With wind turbine blades likely to account for some 50,000 tons of waste annually by 2020, growing 4 times by 2034 (according to research quoted by the European Wind Energy Association), the landfill is not a viable long-term solution. Currently, only a few recycling techniques are available to treat such an enormous quantity. So most have been landfilled and many continue to be buried today.
How exactly is fiberglass recycling done?
There are three main processing methods are used for recycling fiberglass; grinding, incineration, and pyrolysis.
This is the most obvious one, the material is chopped into small pieces and then shredded into small pieces or powders to be reused in other products. Potentially all material that can be reground can be used; there is little or no waste.
The process is labor-intensive and damages the glass fibers. The recycled fiberglass material cannot, therefore, be used the same way as new glass fiber and is generally used as a filler in artificial wood, cement, or asphalt.
Burning or “thermal oxidation,” is using the material to create heat for other purposes, such as making steam to power turbines that generate electricity or heating cement kilns. Later, much of the leftover fibers can be added to strengthen the concrete. An unfortunate byproduct of fiberglass incineration for power is ash, which is usually sent straight to a landfill.
The heat content of fiberglass laminates comes from the organic materials in the resin. Most fiberglass contains only 25% to 30% organic material, so its heat content is low, and the ash content is high. Ash is primarily calcium oxide, which comes from the calcium carbonate, boron, and other oxides in the glass.
The glass fibers are generally damaged by the heat with this method too. Again this makes it a lower value material, unlike other plastics or metals that can be recycled without loss of quality.
This is the process of chemically decomposing or transforming material into one or more recoverable substances by heating it to very high temperatures in an oxygen-depleted environment. This is different from incineration, which takes place with oxygen. Pyrolyzed fiberglass decomposes into three recoverable substances: pyro-gas, pyro-oil, and solid byproduct— all of which can be recycled. Scrap automobile tires are disposed of by pyrolysis (the tire mountain in the United States is over 3 billion tires, growing at the rate of 250 million tires a year).
To pyrolyze fiberglass, it is first shredded into 2-inch (5cm) squares that are fed into the pyrolysis reactor by a vacuum assist, which also draws off most of the oxygen in the atmosphere. The reactor is then heated and at about 500C (932F), the hydrocarbons in the resin decompose into gas. The gas is drawn off and sent through a scrubber, which separates it into pyro-gas and pyro-oil.
The pyrogas is very clean and has an energy content similar to natural gas. It can be sold as a natural gas replacement, and it fuels the burners of the pyrolysis reactor so that the system is self-sustaining. Pyro-oil is similar to heavy crude oil and, while it has less value than normal crude oil, it can be blended with other fuel oils or incorporated into asphalt. Pyro-gas and pyro-oil comprise about 25% of the pyrolysis output in roughly equal amounts. These are free of sulfur, halogens, phosphorous, heavy metals, or other elements that can cause environmental problems.
This process also does the least amount of damage to the glass fibers, making them more valuable to fiberglass manufactures.
The growing sources of fiberglass
The boating industry was and is a very big producer of fiberglass, changing the scene in the 1960s. Boats could be made much more quickly and cheaply, and the boats didn’t rot and need constant maintenance like the previous wood boats. This opened the market up to many people that otherwise would not have been able to afford a boat.
But now many of those 50 and 60-year-old boats cost more to get rid of them than they are worth. It’s sad to see some of the classic boats come to the end of their useable lives. Many have been neglected and haven’t been properly maintained properly and the ingress of water in the wood sandwich decks and through leaky windows cause damage that is not worth fixing. When buying an old damaged boat, the value is only in the things like motors or trailers, because you have to pay to get rid of the hull.
There is also the effect of hurricanes and the Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS), estimates that more than 63,000 recreational boats were damaged or destroyed as a result of both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. The combined dollar damage estimate is $655 million USD (542 million Euros). The most common method for the end of life of one of these boats is to remove the good parts and send the fiberglass hull to the landfill.
The automobile industries in the United States and Europe have done research into recycling fiberglass car bodies and determining how to do it. Automotive recycling is a significant and growing component of automobile manufacturing for the same reason faced by the boatbuilding industry, and that is too many cars on the road slowing sales of new cars.
The wind turbine blades are usually given a 20 or 25-year warranty from the manufacturers, so the companies running the turbines don’t like to run them much past the end of that time. Also to be noted, the tips of the turbines are spinning at 150-200 mph (up to 321 km). At this speed, any debris or even dust in the area can wear away the leading edge of the blades causing delamination and loss of performance. While the overall life of the wind turbine does cause less pollution than coal-fired power plants do, the initial solution of just burying the fiberglass doesn’t seem in line with the goal to cause less pollution.
The boatbuilding industry has made only small and sporadic attempts to recycle its products, certainly nothing on the scale of the automobile industry. And boats have some particularly undesirable features that make them much more difficult to recycle than cars. But that is how we see it today, with innovation and making recycling more common, it’s likely that more opportunities will arise for the old boats.
Emerging innovations in fiberglass recycling
Interest in finding alternative uses for used fiberglass can spark creativity and innovation. For example, a partnership involving the US, Ireland, and Northern Ireland Universities called Re-wind developed some interesting civil engineering project ideas for reusing and repurposing fiberglass blades. These include using decommissioned blades in civil engineering projects as part of powerline structures or towers, or roofs for emergency or affordable housing. In Northern Ireland, Re-wind is also considering piloting them for use in pedestrian bridges along greenways.
Further down the waste hierarchy, additional recycling options are beginning to emerge. WindEurope, representing the European Union’s wind industry, is partnering with the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) and the European Composites Industry Association (EuCIA) to develop new methods to reuse blade materials. The organizations estimate that 14,000 wind turbine blades will be decommissioned over the next few years in Europe alone. In May 2020, the consortium produced Accelerating Wind Turbine Blade Circularity, a comprehensive report which details design, research, and technical solutions focused on the wind turbine life cycle.
A key consideration for recycling composite materials is to ensure that the recycling process has a net positive result compared to the alternative of disposing in landfills.
Examples of recycling fiberglass successfully
France was the first European country to adopt an official national recycling and dismantling network for boats. APER is a non-profit organization established in 2009 by the French Nautical Industries Federation, has established the first boat dismantling network in Europe.
A 2017 European Commission study found that 1 percent to 2 percent of more than 6 million boats less than 72 feet (22 meters) in length — or 80,000 boats annually — are reaching the end of life. France’s national recycling network involves 20 coastal companies and 52 dismantling sites. Its goal, aided by tax dollars, is to deconstruct as many as 25,000 boats by the end of 2023.
Boat Digest provides a helpful map of Europe with the boat dismantlers and their contact info.
Rhode Island Marine Trades Association – Rhode Island, USA
The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association is leading the way in the United States with a pilot project that repurposes end-of-life fiberglass hulls into a resource for cement manufacturers. This method has been used in Europe for the past 10 years and can be a step forward to developing more advanced recycling methods.
The process begins by stripping vessels of non-ferrous metals, engines, electronics, tanks, and interior fabrics, then sending those materials to existing recyclers. The fiberglass hull is cut up and reduced by industrial shredding equipment, and the shredded material can be used as a resource in cement products.
The ultimate hope is for sustained industry support to continue building momentum. “Right now we’re looking for people who are willing not only to give us financial and resource support but are interested in seeing how some of the functions of the recycling network and the model that we’ve created could be implemented into their day-to-day business practices and operations,” says Evan Ridley, the project manager at RIMTA.
He believes the environmental aspect, and sheer ugliness of derelicts, will drive boat recycling more than the economics. “I think it’s going to be a price that we have to pay to preserve our environment,” he says.
RITMA is also actively cleaning their marinas and harbors of floating plastic and trash, and putting a spotlight on their efforts to raise awareness of the issue. Here is an article with more information about 12 systems being implemented to remove plastic from rivers before it reaches the ocean.
Eco-wolf – Florida, USA
They are a small company from Florida that produces fiberglass grinders. Wolfgang Unger is the inventor of recycling and reincorporating FRP and other natural fibers. In the 60’s he saw so much waste and scrap going into landfills and knew if something wasn’t done, there would be a big problem. As a chemist, he researched how to grind and reincorporate all the scrap fiberglass, and in 1973 he developed the method.
Wolfgang designed a machine for “harvesting” fibers that would be optimal for reincorporating into almost every production method – hand layup, spray-up, RTM, spin casting, and filament winding.
Japan Marine Industry Association
They have developed their own recycling program in 2005, as the country was faced with a large number of illegally dumped fiberglass boats. The program uses the existing vehicle and boat dismantlers, and cement plants as recycling facilities. It has 414 boat dealers and marinas, 36 dismantlers, nine processing companies, and five cement plants in its network.
The program has recycled more than 8,000 vessels since 2005 and reportedly sends only 12 or 13 percent of the material to landfills. The cost to transport and recycle the vessels falls on the boat owner, and many opt for cheaper dismantling because of the high cost of landfill dumping. The government support is promising in a country with limited space for landfills and a marine-reliant economy.
General Electric – USA
GE has joined the French company Veolia in a multi-year agreement to recycle the fiberglass wind turbine blades. Veolia will shred the used blades at their Missouri location before being sent to concrete plants to be used for heating and fillers for concrete production.
While this doesn’t represent income for GE, it does show that they are taking responsibility for the products they make, by overseeing the products to their final form.
Zagons Logistik – Germany
The world’s only industrial-scale reprocessing of windturbine blades is currently undertaken by Zagons Logistik at its factory in northern Germany.
On-site, when the wind turbines are dismantled, the company’s service begins with the use of a mobile saw that originated in the concrete and mining industry. It uses a cable with diamond inserts, and a water mist to cut large blades into shorter sections of 35-40 feet long. These sections can then be transported on a conventional truck rather than a longer vehicle requiring a police escort and permits.
At the reprocessing facility, a stationery cable saw is used to reduce blade sections further, to about three feet in length. These sections then enter a crusher that has been modified to handle fiber-reinforced plastics. This reduces the material size to about 1-2.5 inches.
The next stage sees the material being fed into a cross-flow shredder, which rotates 800 rpm, reducing the chunks of waste blades further. A hammer mill then takes their size down to a maximum of 0.5 inches, after which they are mixed with other, wet waste materials. The addition of wet substances ensures that glass fibers from the crushed turbine blades are captured and bind to the rest of the mixed waste.
The result is a compound that cement producer Holcim can use both as a substitute fuel, replacing coal-ash, and as raw material, displacing some of its need for virgin washed sand. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, as is synthetic gypsum, used for drywall in many countries. Read more about drywall recycling and the future of synthetic gypsum as coal starts to go away.
Zagons Logistik is eager to secure larger volumes of waste turbine blades since its plant is running only at about one-third of its full capacity. The company currently reprocesses about 400-500 tonnes of waste turbine blades each month.
Plasti-Fab Washington, USA
Plasti-Fab, a manufacturer of fiberglass composite solutions, has begun large-scale integration of its recycled fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP), reducing negative emissions, the use of non-sustainable materials, and raising industry standards for greener production.
For the last 40 years, Plasti-Fab has been involved in fiberglass production, mostly due to its use of fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) composites. Plasti-Fab’s recent acquisition of custom-made equipment for large-scale recycling raises the standard for reducing environmental impact in fiberglass-based production.
Their new grinder machine allows Plasti-Fab to collect various wastes, trim, and overspray materials that can create a compound reused in several closed mold manufacturing processes. The production not only cleans up the production process but also results in a recycled material that can replace previously used non-biodegradable foam core.
American Fiber Green Products – Florida,USA
From their newer plant in Florida, American Fiber Green Products recycling entity, Amour Fiber Core, is transforming old fiberglass into wood-substitute planks that go into picnic tables, fencing, seawalls and more. Amour takes fiberglass from boats, car and truck bodies, personal watercraft, shower stalls, and other fiberglass wastes, then recycles all into high-strength, durable commercial and consumer products. This Florida company will take old boats (for a fee), and most locations have a pick-up service.
Isodan has developed a dust free and mobile production plant solution for recycling fiberglass and composite waste materials. The Isodan plant can handle all kinds of fiberglass and composite materials such as wind turbine blades, old boats, and industrial waste materials.
Built in a shipping container, the whole operation can be transported like a normal container, to anywhere in the world. It can be operated by just one person and it will recycle fiberglass panels, mat, and other materials too.
Vestas Wind Systems A/S – Denmark
The second-largest company in wind turbine design, manufacturing, and global installation company, announced a bold commitment to producing zero waste wind turbines by 2040.
Vestas plans to achieve this by increasing recyclability over the next 20 years by working closely with its partners along the supply chain to ultimately avoid any incineration or landfilling of its products. More partnerships like these between wind industry companies are needed to help fill the gap and make wind energy systems 100 percent recyclable.
Global Fiberglass Solutions – Washington, USA
Founded in 2009 by Don Lilly and Ken Weyant, GFS started looking at wind turbine blades as a recycling feedstock. With Composite Material & Engineering Center at Washington State University, they developed a patented process for recycling fiberglass composites.
Now, GFS is going through design, engineering, site preparation and air quality permitting for its scale-up in Sweetwater, Texas. The facility is currently capable of processing two or three blades per day, or 2-3 tons per hour on an eight-hour shift. At full production, the plant will be able to process eight tons per hour, or about one blade an hour.
Between earlier generations of wind turbine blades reaching old age and government tax credits incentivizing upgrades to more efficient blades, a lot of material is projected to enter the end-of-life stream in coming years.
As far as wind turbine blades are concerned, GFS charges system owners to collect decommissioned blades. The turbine owners would otherwise have to pay for collection and landfilling. Some counties are already banning turbine blades from their landfills.
Additionally, the company is working to commercialize the recycling of carbon fiber composites. GFS helped fund research by a WSU team developing a chemical recycling method for the materials, which are used in the aerospace, energy, and other industries.
But GFS is also looking beyond wind turbine blades to scrap fiberglass from boats, wind turbines, and planes.
“There’s a lot of stuff going to our landfills right now that are glass fiber composites,” says Karl Englund, chief technology officer for Global Fiberglass Solutions. “We’re really focused not just on the wind turbines but all the other fiberglass streams out there too.”
Carbon Rivers – USA
Two large utilities in the US, PacificCorp and MidAmerican Energy have recently announced plans to partner with the Tennessee company Carbon Rivers to recycle some of the utilities used turbine blades instead of landfilling them. The technology used by Carbon Rivers is being supported through grant funding by the US Department of Energy and will be used to break down and reuse fiberglass from used turbine blades.
This form of recycling involves control of the disposal supply chain—including sawing the turbine blades into smaller pieces at the decommissioning site to decrease transportation logistics and costs. The process promises 100 percent recycling and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from cement co-processing through replacing the production of cement raw materials with recycled blades, plus the use of biogas from organic remnants in place of coal as a fuel.
The final products from recycled fiberglass
One creative recycling option produces pellets or boards that can be used in carpentry applications. In 2019, Global Fiberglass Solutions began producing a product called EcoPoly Pellets in the U.S. and now also produces a panel version. These panels and pellets are waterproof and great for marine applications and for use in the weather.
EcoPoly Pellets can be transformed into a variety of products such as warehouse pallets, flooring material, or parking bollards. Based on its demand forecasts, Global Fiberglass Solutions anticipates being able to process 6,000 to 7,000 blades per year at each of its two plants in Texas and Iowa.
Making new boats with recycled fiberglass
Ryds båtar is a Swedish boatbuilder, producing about 3,600 small powerboats each year in 36 models ranging in size from 11 to 20 feet. About six years ago, with the help of the Swedish Institute of Composites, Ryds began development on manufacturing boats with closed-loop recycled scrap, which accounted for about 10% of its layup production. The result was a 15.5-foot concept boat, containing about 20% recycled fiberglass by weight.
The original single-skin laminates of sprayed-polyester fiberglass in the hull and deck were cut back by 50% and replaced with a sprayable polyester mixture containing 33% to 40% ground scrap. Core materials, such as plywood, Coremat, and Divinycell, were replaced with the scrap mixture. The boat’s laminates had equal or better strength in all respects and, where the recycled compound replaced plywood, screw-holding power improved significantly.
In the end, the goal of increasing innovation towards additional use applications for retired fiberglass boats, wind turbine blades, and aircraft parts requires having enough market demand to incentivize the creation of facilities that can recycle the material. Alongside that challenge is a lack of policy in the U.S. regarding end-of-use considerations for turbine blades, further contributing to the standard method of storage or disposal as solid waste in landfills.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
While we still don’t have a definite answer for the boats in much of the USA, as the fiberglass recycling industry grows for the wind turbines, there will be more options for the marine sector.
An added approach to the blade recycling issue is to focus on what the blades are made of. Research and development are going into using thermoplastic resin instead of fiberglass or carbon fiber for wind turbine blades. The material may be easier and cheaper to recycle.
One company’s aim is to validate the processes for using Elium®, a thermoplastic resin, as a turbine blade material. Effiwind took a decisive step forward at the end of 2016 when it produced the first 25-meter blade. Using NREL’s thermal welding technique coupled with Arkema’s resin system—earned a 2020 Special Recognition Award from R&D 100 for being a “market disrupting” technology.
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