Yes, fiberglass is recyclable. Unfortunately, over the 8 decades that it has been in existence, only one company has been able to develop a way to recycle it successfully.
What is more problematic is the fact that these recycling services aren’t available on a large scale, which means that the bulk of fiberglass ends up as toxic waste. This small, fragmented fiberglass recycling market also faces the problem of offering very little in terms of returns, as the price for the recycled product is too low to justify the process.
WHAT IS FIBERGLASS MADE OF?
The main components of fiberglass are sand, silica, and polyester resin woven together with thin strands of glass fibers. There are several other different, naturally occurring compounds used to create fiberglass that are found in glass, and the type varies based on the machinery used to develop it. The uses of fiberglass vary substantially, with its qualities as an insulating compound making it preferable in the manufacture of anything from durable fiberglass windows and sports helmets to surfboards.
Note that on a strength to weight ratio, fiberglass is the most reliable construction material in its class; it doesn’t deteriorate over time and it is known to withstand extreme temperatures. These qualities have, over the years, made it a suitable substitute for asbestos, vastly increasing its use in thermal and electric insulation.
WHY IS FIBERGLASS BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Despite its numerous practical applications, fiberglass is still considered an environmental nightmare; mostly because there is no efficient way to dispose of it. It can withstand high temperatures, is impervious to practically every force of nature, and doesn’t disintegrate. Because of this, it has proven to be a cause of concern for many years now.
On top of that, its fabrication process also has pitfalls. The process primarily contains pollutants such as styrene, solvents, and paints; all of which are known to cause a variety of respiratory complications. We are dealing with a list of very volatile organic compounds, the effects of which can be brutal to those exposed to it.
HOW IS FIBERGLASS RECYCLED?
There are several advances in technology that are pointing towards successfully recycling fiberglass soon. First on that list is a process developed in Norway that seeks to separate the glass fibers from the polyester resin and make up to 80% of the original compound available for reuse. However, the process is yet to be perfected. Ensuring the cleanliness of the raw component, as well as separating it from the fiberglass, still proves to be problematic. This process is not fully operational, but it is considered to be a valid solution for large scale fiberglass recycling in the future.
A company called Eco-Wolf, in Florida, also has a process that mechanically grinds fiberglass into powdered resin and loose glass fibers, allowing them to be reused in other applications. The biggest challenge of this kind of recycling is the fact that the fragmented market and the low return still makes dumping fiberglass in landfills a more pocket book-friendly alternative for most people. This means that recycling isn’t a fluid market in many areas.
There is also a process referred to as Pylorisis, which involves the use of heat in a controlled, inert enclosure to recover the polyester resin as an oil that can be used as fuel. This controlled atmosphere reduces the risk of air pollution, but the intense heat may, on some level, damage the fibers. This indicates that the recycling process still falls short of being a valid solution.
Lastly, there is the consideration of thermal oxidation as a way to reuse fiberglass. This process involves burning organic material in the resin, which is typically about 30%, as a way to produce heat as a power source. The drawback here is the fact that this process produces a significant amount of ash, which is a pollutant when piled into landfills. The incineration process also causes air pollution, which defeats the point of the recycling process.
WHERE TO RECYCLE FIBERGLASS
Although there have been significant strides over the years seeking a clean, efficient, environmentally friendly way to recycle fiberglass, the market is still small and fragmented. There are, however, some companies around the U.S and Europe that offer some form of recycling. Here is a list of some of the known fiberglass recycling plants.
The Zajons Zerkleinerungs GmbH in Germany is one of the well-known companies that has developed several uses for recycled fiberglass. It has developed commercial applications as well and has partnered up with Fiberline composites in Denmark. The two companies have established a relationship where surplus fiberglass is shipped from the Denmark company and used as a component in the production of cement.
Next on the list is the Florida based Eco Wolf Inc., which doesn’t just offer disposal services but is so intricate in its recycling that it maintains the integrity of the glass fibers enough to reuse it.
Lastly, although it does not have a listed location, the American Fiber Green Productsis another company that has its hand in the fiberglass recycling industry. The glass fiber waste is transformed into composite material for building fences, sea walls, tables, and other household items.
Fiberglass recycling plants are pretty few and far between, and for the most part, they do not have specific drop off points where you can deposit the waste. So, for most people, landfills are still a convenient and more pocket book-friendly alternative.
Despite its hard to match insulation qualities, fiberglass is still an environmental nightmare for obvious reasons. The fact that it does not degrade means it can sit in a landfill for years, and the segmented nature of recycling also indicates that there are no valid alternatives. It is also worth noting that the problem most recyclers face is the obscenely low resale value of fiberglass, which makes manufacturing fiberglass into a new product nothing more than a fool’s errand. Hopefully, this will change soon.
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