According to Thoughtco.com, a “composite” is formed when two or more different materials are combined to create a “new” and unique material. This is an extremely broad definition that holds true for all composites. More recently the term “composite” frequently describes reinforced plastics, particularly Fiber Reinforced Plastics. To an extent, these materials are competing with steel today.
Common composites include: Fiberglass, Carbon Fiber, Aramid Fiber, Boron Fiber, Basalt Fiber, Natural Fibers (composites of Wood, Flax, Hemp, etc.). Within the fiberglass family there is Epoxy, Vinyl Ester, Polyester, Polyurethane, and Polypropylene.
These materials are so “modern” compared to steel. Doesn’t modern mean better?
As we have written previously, steel is the #1 most recycled material in the world – 100% recyclable – which, coupled with a low carbon footprint, makes for a truly sustainable material. Plastics and composites in most forms are simply NOT recyclable. So while lightweight and corrosion-resistant, the long-term look is much less attractive. Even short-term, composites are less attractive for cost. Typically per pound they are more expensive than even stainless steel. Some industry analysts say that composite’s true place in industry are as repair and patching materials, not as the foundation material. (Remember Bondo?)
But sustainability isn’t the only reason steel remains strong. Its backbone, a very high strength-to-weight ratio still makes it the material of choice for structural integrity; and not just the type of strength that’s allowed bridges to span rivers and buildings to stand for years, but strength enough to adapt to the times. The new, advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) are meeting needs in the automotive and aerospace industries and beyond.
Last thoughts on plastics and composites with non-biodegradable materials:
- The recent plastic garbage patch found in the Pacific is larger in square miles than the entire country of Mexico. And that’s just one of a few patches in the oceans.
- According to National Geographic, over 8 million TONS of new plastic garbage is entering the environment every year, and the number grows by year.
- Remember the steel recycling percentage? Close to 100%? With plastics a shocking 91% is NOT recycled.
Composites and plastics? I’ll stick with steel.