Many of the properties that make FRP composites the preferred material of choice for performance reasons also result in a more sustainable material. These properties include:
- Durability, requiring less frequent maintenance and replacement
- Resistance to rot and corrosion, resulting in a longer service life
- Low weight, resulting in lower impact transportation and/or installation by reducing the size of equipment needed for installation
- Insulating, providing energy savings during use
Composites can contribute to reducing environmental impact by direct application and through functional applications.
Direct contribution can be seen in applications that reduce energy requirements, such as:
- Fiberglass window lineals and doors do not rot, rust or swell – resulting in fewer air leaks and better seals than wood and steel products. Also FRP components provide inherent insulation value that far exceeds aluminum and steel products.
- The heavy truck industry has moved to predominately composite bodies. This move from steel to FRP reduces truck weight and allows for more freight to be carried, so fewer trips are required, and also provides for significant fuel savings when the truck is pulling empty.
Functional contribution can be seen in applications such as:
- Wind turbines, where the composite blades allow significantly longer length than traditional wood blades and facilitate the production of clean energy.
- Scrubbers and stacks that can resist the corrosive nature of flue gas desulfurization and other scrubbing operations allow industrial operations to remove air contaminants under conditions that would fail traditional metals very quickly.
Life Cycle Analysis
A life cycle analysis (LCA) is the method used to compare the environmental impact of two different materials in the same use-phase. The LCA measures the environmental impacts for a number of different attributes, including such items as energy use, green house gas generation and water consumption. The assessment includes the raw materials, manufacturing process, transportation and distribution, use phase and disposal phase of the products being reviewed.
Third-party, peer-reviewed LCA studies have been used to compare composite materials to more traditional building materials. The studies frequently demonstrate a clear environmental impact reduction when comparing composites to other materials such as aluminum and steel.
The Future of Composites
The composite industry is driving to improve in the area of sustainability, including:
- Generation of more life cycle analysis studies. The American Composite Manufacturers Association has recently led an industry wide effort to develop Life Cycle Inventory data for the major raw materials and processes used in composite products. This will make future LCAs easier to perform, more accurate and lower cost. Similar efforts to develop European LCI data sets are underway.
- The use of alternative materials. The use of alternatives is not limited to composites replacing traditional materials. The composite industry has been aggressively identifying and utilizing recycled materials as fillers and in the binder resins. There has also been significant work to replace petroleum based raw materials with bio based materials. This trend is expected to continue.
- The use of natural fiber reinforcements. Natural fibers, such as flax, hemp, and jute, have been significantly studied and improved and are now being used as a partial or full replacement for the traditional fiber reinforcement in reinforced composite parts.
- Improved logistics for recycling composite materials. Composites are durable, and this makes recycling composites a challenge. As the industry develops improved means of recycling, there is a larger need for lower cost and more consumer friendly means of collecting, handling and shipping composite materials for re-use. Improvements in the recycling options available is a key industry objective.