Life After Linear: Building a circular future for composites
Advancing circular strategies for composites
Circular economy for composites appears to be a business model that can only be realised through trial and error. Due to its complex and disruptive nature, numerous regulations and initiatives have been introduced in Europe. One significant example is the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR), which was included in the European Green Deal of March 2022. The ESPR encompasses framework legislation, product-specific measures, and multiannual working plans for the adoption of ecodesign throughout Europe. However, the current draft (as of 2023) still does not specifically target composites separately from polymers as one of the products on the list.
To support circularity strategies, the European Commission (EC) released a budget of 24.7 million euros for research and innovation projects focusing on innovative dismantling and sorting systems for the reuse and functional recycling of complex composite materials. However, as stated by experts, a classification system for the quality of secondary material is still lacking. The EC also warned the European Union that several member states have already begun to impose environmental sustainability requirements on products. This fragmentation of the market through diverging national rules is complicating and increasing the costs of doing business.
As composites consist of two dissimilar materials, they need to be looked at differently when considering regulations. It is incorrect to assume they can be classified as plastics since they have different value chains compared to unreinforced plastics. In many cases, composites are irreversibly set once they have been manufactured into moulds. Consequently, retrieving value from the material at the end of its life is very challenging.
Examining possible alternatives for the matrix and fibres is crucial to ensure a circular economy for composites. Also, lower production costs, better recovery of material, and an overall reduced dependence on fossil fuels are essential goals. However, these alternative methods and materials are currently still more expensive, less available, and often impeded by regulation.
Policy instruments, regulations, and financing need to be carefully elaborated with experts from the industry who understand the best solutions for the composite industry. Regulations that are effective for textiles or plastics may not necessarily work the same way for composites.
Emma Arussi, Consultant
To delve further into this topic read the full article as featured in the JEC sustainability report available below.
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