July 27, 2021

What are composite materials, and why are they so notoriously difficult to recycle?


Many of the materials that we rescue are composites, most of the time complex composites, and there is a good reason for this. At Elvis & Kresse we specifically target materials that are not currently "recyclable", ones which do not currently have a future. The reason why composites often have no hope is that they simply can’t flow through our traditional recycling systems.

What can we easily recycle in the UK?

Glass, certain plastics like PET (the kind of plastic in single use water bottles for example), and most metals like steel or aluminium. To oversimplify, these materials can be chopped up, melted down, and made new again. The recycling systems in the UK are designed for volume, to extract the most material and retain the most value. They are not, however, designed for niche, complicated materials and certainly not for composites where the blend of materials is always changing. Globally we have invested trillions in recycling equipment and infrastructure, but it is specialised; if it is designed to recycle aluminium it won't work for something like disposable nappies (which, by the way, can only be recycled in one or two local authorities in the entirety of the UK so don't even think of putting them in the recycling unless you have an ironclad guarantee from your council that they are really being recycled). Life would be easier if we were legally obliged to only design products which we could already recycle with the equipment we already have.

Fire-hose

Vintage Fire-hose - Elvis & Kresse

Our signature material and the heroic material first used in our Fire-hose Collection is, of course, decommissioned fire-hose. Fire-hose is not one material. It is made from a double wall jacket of nitrile rubber that is extruded through and around a nylon woven core, which is then cured. The woven nylon is an absolutely crucial part of the design, think of it as the skeleton that basically maintains the structural integrity of the hose. The rubber and the nylon are married, you can’t separate them. You can’t chop up the hose and re-melt it as the nylon fibres would get in the way.

Printing Blanket

Vintage Printing Blanket - Elvis & Kresse

The Printing Blanket that we rescue and re-engineer, you will find it in our matt black 'Print Room Collection', is the same. It is a multi-layered sheet, which includes layers of rubber that are laminated to canvas. Currently there is no way to completely mechanically separate these layers for recycling. What do Elvis & Kresse do? We split this material, but we do not 100% separate it. We create two layers, both ready for reuse in our collections and as packaging.

Tea Sack

Vintage Tea Sack - Elvis & Kresse

Tea Sack, yet another material we reclaim, poses another complicated problem. Tea sack (not to be confused with tea bags!) is shipped in largely paper-based sacks. These sacks are used to import/export loose tea and generally includes three layers of kraft paper with a final layer that is laminated to foil and polyethylene. This final layer is laminated so that the tea can be completely protected from oxygen and sunshine; both of which degrade tea and steal its aroma. Our team manually separate these layers by hand, iron them flat, and reuse each layer for our leaflets and packaging. Stay tuned too, because we are still working on tea sack innovation!

Frankenfabrics

I often think of composite materials as "Frankenfabrics". In fashion we encounter so many kinds of blended textiles, like polycottons, wool/acrylics, denim/spandex, these are all Frankenfibres. Although there are some amazing technologies in development, which can separate out the polymer content from the natural content, I think we need to think much more carefully about why we are combining these materials in the first place. Many are found in sportswear, and the blend is considered vital for performance, but what about how it performs for the planet, for generations to come?


In a perfect world nothing should be legally manufactured that can’t be easily and completely recycled or composted. This ideal world would be circular. We wouldn’t take, make and waste, we would instead keep all materials either within the natural system, or in perpetual reuse or recycling. I think we have the ingenuity to do this, but we definitely need legislation in place to level the playing field and unleash our creativity. The ‘free’ market has never really been beneficial for the environment or the millions of people (in farming, mining, making, distribution) who are consistently exploited. The free market chases profits not perfection.

At Elvis & Kresse we are chasing perfection. 



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