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New Kind of Composite Utilizes Plastic Waste

When Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites works on a carbon fiber prototype for a client, they are creating a material that meets the classic definition of a composite. They are combining two or more materials that all retain their unique identities and contribute their structural properties in order to create a finished product with superior performance.

Anyone who knows anything about composites would instantly recognize one of Rock West’s carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRPs) as a composite material. But turn your attention to Louisiana-based IntegriCo Composites, and you are looking at a company that produces a proprietary material that is not so easily recognized as a composite – even though it is.

If you want to know more about this revolutionary product, check out a great article written by Composites World senior editor Ginger Gardner. She goes into all of the details in her post. For our purposes though, we want to focus on the benefits of this new material. It starts with recycled plastic waste.

Keeping Plastic out of Landfills

According to Gardiner, more than 90% of the world’s plastics end up as waste destined for landfills. That includes materials like the CFRPs produced by Rock West and similar companies. The biggest problem are plastic grades from 3 to 7. These are the hardest to recycle.

For the longest time, those of us in North America didn’t worry too much about plastic waste because China was willing to take it off our hands. But that is no more. China has closed its door to North American plastic waste. That leaves us to either fill up our landfills or find a way to reuse waste. That’s where this new composite material comes in.

IntegriCo has come up with a way to combine multiple types of plastic waste to create a composite material with a lot of different applications. More important than the applications themselves is the ability to keep plastic waste out of landfills. That alone makes IntegriCo’s material well worth developing further.

Other Means of Recycling

IntegriCo isn’t the only company to have developed a revolutionary way to recycle plastics. A number of other innovations have already been on the market for a while. For example, plastic water and soda bottles are now routinely recycled by shredding them and then treating the resulting material to create a plastic thread.

The thread can be woven to create a fabric similar to carbon fiber fabric. Thus, you can use it to make things like shoes, handbags, backpacks, and various articles of clothing. You can also make products like eyewear frames by chopping the plastic rather than shredding it. Chopped plastic can be melted and sent through an injection mold machine to create just about any kind of part.

On the CFRP front, carbon fiber waste is finally being recycled in earnest. This is good news, according to Rock West. Recycling carbon fiber waste keeps it out of landfills and brings the cost of carbon fiber fabrication down. So, how are they doing it?

The most predominant process today involves chopping or shredding carbon fiber waste into smaller pieces. The resulting material is combined with new resin and pressed into panels in much the same way composite wood materials are created. The resulting panels do not have the same strength as virgin carbon fiber, but they have plenty of applications where structural integrity requirements are not so strict.

Kudos to companies like Rock West and IntegriCo Composites, companies that are finding new ways to use composites and recycle waste. They are the drivers of a new economy based on technological advancement.