Taking recycling from zero to 100 percent

October 26, 2020

This month, the National Association of Manufacturers honored Boeing with a sustainability leadership award for creating a market for recycled aerospace-grade excess carbon fiber and diverting up to one million pounds of solid waste to landfill annually. “This recognition demonstrates Boeing’s ability to weave sustainability into all we do by moving from the world’s largest consumer of aerospace-grade composite without a plan for waste to today being the only company able to recycle 100% of its excess carbon fiber,” said Bryan Scott, vice president, Environment, Health & Safety.

A Tauber team project helped launch Boeing's carbon fiber recycling success. In the summer of 2015, the business and engineering Tauber Institute student team of Akul Bali, Kelsea Ballantyne, and Martha Neubauer spent fourteen weeks creating and piloting a plan to enable the 777X Composite Wing Center to become a zero waste-to-landfill production facility. Unlike metals, carbon fiber did not have an established recycling industry, so the team’s work was crucial in developing carbon fiber recycling standards at Boeing and beyond. Over the course of the summer, the students categorized types and volumes of carbon fiber waste, created a collection and segregation process, and identified recycling opportunities through both internal and external markets.

Learn more about Boeing's efforts and see demonstrations of the recycling process >

As part of their process, the students created the 'Tauber Waste Discovery Method' to estimate volumes and types of carbon fiber waste generated. Their simulations highlighted key shortfalls in the process that resulted in missed opportunities to sell to reusers and recyclers. To address these issues, the team piloted point-of-use waste segregation and prototyped a material handling bolt tool with operators. “These innovations cost less in time and money than the baseline process and created waste material in a form that reusers and recyclers would purchase,” said Ballantyne.“Our bolt tool allows the operator to quickly consolidate scrap into a bolt, similar to a bolt of fabric, which is cost effective for shipping. Because of our methods, Boeing will be able to profit from its scrap carbon fiber, instead of paying for it to be disposed of safely.”

The Tauber team created a model that integrated engineering, operational, and market variables. “We brought together five departments that had not collaborated prior, thus creating a holistic solution,” said Ballantyne. Now Boeing partners with United Kingdom-based ELG Carbon Fibre to recycle excess aerospace-grade composite for use in laptop cases, car parts, rail-car undercarriages and other products, and has implemented carbon-fiber recycling at 11 manufacturing sites across the globe.


Contact: Theresa Ceccarelli, Marketing Manager / tceccare@umich.edu / 734-647-0308

The Tauber Institute for Global Operations is a joint venture between the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the College of Engineering, working together with industry partners to facilitate cross-disciplinary education in global operations management. The Tauber Institute is an inaugural recipient of the UPS George D. Smith Prize for effective and innovative preparation of students to be good practitioners of operations research, management science, or analytics. For more information visit www.tauber.umich.edu.