The Environmental Issue

The environmental issue addressed by the programme is the disposal of fibreglass waste.

Fibreglass (often referred to as Glass Fibre-Reinforced Plastic, GFRP) is a composite building material made of strands of glass (either as long filaments or short-fibred glass wool) encased in a matrix of thermosetting resins, usually polyester, vinyl ester or epoxide based, which, with the help of special catalysts and accelerants, polymerize at room temperature.

From the 1950s onwards, fibreglass, due to its light weight, strength, stiffness, exertion and corrosion resistance, as well as poor electrical conductivity, has been used in a wide variety of applications.

However, the recycling process of such products is much more complicated than the recycling process of thermo-plastic materials.

The first issue is connected to the use of thermosetting resins: the polymerization reaction of such resins is not re-versible. They do not return to their original liquid state upon heating, as thermoplastic materials normally do. There-fore fibreglass scraps cannot be melted and remodelled as is quite often the case when recycling plastic.

The second issue is linked to the synthetic vitreous fibres contained in fibreglass: the results from epidemiological research carried out on lab animals forced to inhale and/or put into contact with fibres insufflated directly into their lungs, showed significant cell alteration at the alveolar and pleural levels resulting in the development of carcinomas and mesotheliomas. Although epidemiological tests on men have not been carried out, glass fibres have been the subject of an EC Directive, which includes them among hazardous substances subject to labelling. Furthermore, glass fibres used in the manufacturing of fibreglass products are classified Category 3 (EU) carcinogens and they must be labelled under code R40 “danger of very serious irreversible effects”.

Whilst for composite materials containing fibres with a high commercial value (such as carbon or Kevlar) it is possible to use several techniques to recover the fibres (vacuum pyrolysis, fluidised bed thermal processes, supercritical fluid extraction), such recycling methods cannot be used for those with a low commercial value (like fibreglass), as they are not economically viable.

Current options for the disposal of GFRP waste are:

  • Landfill (sinking boats with fibreglass hulls to the seabed); although still rather widespread, this method of waste disposal is certainly not the best solution, also because of the none biodegradability of the material;
  • Incineration and its resulting atmospheric pollution;
  • Recycling through regrinding: the composite is broken up and ground into small particles to then be re-used as a filler (usually in building materials);
  • Recycling through pyrolysis, consisting in the thermochemical decomposition of a polymer in the absence of oxy-gen. The fibres are separated and reused as fillers (such a solution, however, is not cost effective);
  • Recycling with acid digestion, consisting in the chemical break down of the composite (the costs involved, however, are prohibitive).

As illustrated above, it is clear that at present a safe and efficient process for recycling fibreglass does not exist.