It is safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of daily life. It has impacted every industry in the world, including the composites industry. Only time will tell exactly what the long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be. However, we are getting an early glimpse of how it might influence composite recycling.

It could be that the composites industry sees a renewed emphasis on recycling as the COVID-19 dust settles. If you’re not sure why, think about the difference between reusable and single-use products.

Banning the Plastic Bag

A good way to understand the recycling equation is to consider the plastic grocery bag. Over the years we’ve seen lawmakers at multiple levels work to ban plastic grocery bags. They are now illegal in many metropolitan areas around the country. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a curious change of direction in some of these areas.

Local lawmakers, concerned that reusable fabric grocery bags could promote the spread of the virus, are asking stores to start using single-use plastic bags once again. What these lawmakers are discovering is that there are consequences to every action. You might eliminate some of the hazardous consequences of using plastic bags by banning them, but the replacement product you come up with has its own hazards.

What does this have to do with composites? A long-standing challenge of composites is keeping them out of landfills. Carbon fiber and fiberglass products consume landfill space for potentially thousands of years. They simply don’t break down as quickly as wood, textiles, etc. So the industry has been quietly developing new and improved recycling methods. The COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate those efforts.

Better Recycling a Better Strategy

Getting back to plastic grocery bags, perhaps banning them outright was not the way to go. Maybe it would have been better to figure out an effective and cheap way to recycle them. Perhaps it would have been better to develop what CompositesWorld contributor Dale Brosius refers to as a ‘circular economy’.

We already know that it’s technically possible to recycle plastic grocery bags. Yet there isn’t a lot of it going on because the economic demand for it doesn’t exist. What if we change that dynamic? What if we put our energy into developing an economic model that would make plastic bag recycling more profitable?

Recycling works best when those who do it can make a profitable business out of it. Find a way to do this with plastic bags and you create a circular model that keeps those bags out of landfills and waterways and, instead, sees them continually recycled.

The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic point to the possibility that a circular economy is better. The pandemic’s many implications are proving that modern plastics are not the enemy. At least they don’t have to be. Common sense would indicate that we find better ways to use and reuse plastics rather than abandoning them and returning to the materials our plastics replaced.

Better Composite Recycling

The lessons being learned from plastic grocery bags apply to composites as well. According to Rock West Composites in Salt Lake City, Utah, recycling efforts have ramped up in recent years. For example, engineers have discovered how to recycle carbon fiber waste by chopping it into small pieces and pressing it into a material similar to particleboard.

That is just one way to do it. There are other methods now being developed around the world. Despite all its negatives, the COVID-19 pandemic might very well push composite recycling into a whole new era of lower cost products and greater profitability.