It’s well-known within the wind power industry that as much as 90% of a turbine can be recycled. Less fully understood is that to achieve the much-sought after “100% recycling” milestone, we still need to find a sustainable after-life solution for the blades.

Blades are, in fact, 100% recyclable. There are already mature technologies that use blades as feedstock in cement co-processing, for instance, and the ‘granulates’ of recovered fibreglass and other materials put through mechanical grinding can be used for a range of new products.

However, being fully recyclable in theory doesn’t really matter, if the blades are not recycled in practice. And it is clear that the lack of large-scale, cost efficient recycling value chains for blades – which are made of polymer-rich composite materials – remains a significant hurdle.

Presently, the wind power industry is witnessing unprecedented growth owing to rising demand for clean energy globally. With that, the number of decommissioned turbines and their blades is set to climb rapidly. Added to this are the ever-growing volume of blades from machines that were installed 20 years ago are now nearing the end of their operational life.

And all these junked blades represent only a fraction of the total composite waste stream – and alone do not present a strong enough business case for companies to invest in the equipment for recycling composites.

Cross-sectors partnerships are essential to solving this challenge. Working together, we can accelerate the transition to a circular economy for blades and other composite materials by finding answers to two central questions: how to make recycling infrastructure widely available and how to create a market for the processed ‘outputs’.

Recycling is not just a wind industry challenge: It’s a composites sector challenge. We need to encourage investment in recycling infrastructure that can handle waste from a variety of composite manufacturing industries, as well as the waste from blades.

Working together, we can accelerate the transition to a circular economy for blades by answering 'how to make recycling infrastructure available' and 'how to create a market for processed outputs’

To shoulder this collective responsibility, DecomBlades was launched in January to take blades to 100% recyclability. Partially funded by the Innovation Fund Denmark, this three-year project being chaired by GE-owned LM Wind Power includes key industrial players and research organisations aiming at developing the basis for commercially viable recycling value chains. The project focuses on the most promising technologies that can be upscaled to recycle the forecast volumes of decommissioned blades in the future and underpin the growth of recycling industries.

Building up recycling infrastructure is necessary, but that is only part of the solution to the composite waste recycling challenge. A market for the recycled composite materials needs to be established to attract investment. The wind industry needs to play an active role here, exploring and supporting the use of recycled composite materials into production of blades or new products.

Carbon neutral since 2018, LM Wind Power’s next step on it sustainability journey is to manage resources optimally throughout the entire blade life cycle, including finding sustainable solutions for end-of-life blades. However, waste occurs at other stages of the blade life cycle – in our supply chain and in our manufacturing – and to be truly sustainable we also need to find solutions for eliminating that waste.

The best way to address the waste of valuable resources is to prevent the waste before it occurs: by using less material in our production and recycled materials rather than virgin materials where possible. LM Wind Power is introducing recycled materials into blade designs already, for instance by using recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) as a core material in blades rather than balsa, and we need to continue to work with our supply chain to increase the use of recycled materials in blade materials.

For the waste that cannot be prevented, recycling must be chosen over landfill, regardless of whether this waste occurs during the manufacturing process or at the blade’s end-of-life. The cross-sector Zebra (Zero wastE Blade ReseArch) project, is pursuing that goal to develop 100% sustainable blades. To make this ambition a reality, the Zebra partners represent the full value chain: from development of materials, to blade manufacturing, wind turbine operation, and eventually recycling of waste from blade manufacturing and at its end-of-life.

It’s promising to see these new, strategic partnerships forming to accelerate the transition to a circular economy – and we still have a lot more to learn from each other. As a blade designer and manufacturer, we can influence the sustainability of our products during the design process, by designing with sustainability in mind. However, cross-sector partnerships are needed to establish recycling infrastructure and a market for recycled blade material.

In essence, achieving the target that counts – 100% recycling of blades in practice – will only be accomplished when there is a market for recycled composite materials supported by viable recycling value chains.

· John Korsgaard is head of Engineering Excellence at GE-owned LM Wind Power