Trash to Treasure


The confluence of technology and innovation is immensely advancing the repurpose of goods.

boeing plus russell

In 2014, Boeing, the largest aerospace company in the world, and athletic apparel manufacturer, Russell Athletic, formed a partnership - originated on the premise that the excess carbon fiber from the production of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner would be a perfect input material for Russell Athletic's protective football gear.

The two organizations combined forces to transform Boeing's excess aerospace-grade carbon fiber into a novel Russell Athletic product: CarbonTek shoulder pads. A revolutionary football shoulder pad boasting an 100% carbon fiber exoskeleton.

Not only does repurposing carbon fiber help Boeing achieve its environmental and business objectives (waste and cost savings, respectively), but the use of carbon filaments in the company's commercial airplanes enables greater durability and a more robust strength-to-weight ratio, as compared to current input materials. Due to the lighter weight of the carbon filaments, carbon emissions are reduced and fuel efficiency enhanced. The leftover carbon transferred to Russell Athletic is a wonderful by-product of Boeing's manufacturing process.

The CarbonTek shoulder pad system is the first-ever protective athletic gear made from aerospace-grade carbon fiber, offering increased range of motion, and material that is approximately 10% lighter than that of competitors. The pads have also proven to be 65% more effective in injury prevention, as compared to alternative options on the market.

"We're thrilled to partner with Boeing and discover new ways to utilize carbon fiber used on the 787 to make innovative, game-changing products for the sports industry. It's an exciting opportunity for both companies to leverage the value of carbon fiber used in high-performance gear while helping to meet environmental goals." -  Robby Davis, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Russell Athletic.


"Boeing decided to build the 787 Dreamliner with carbon composites to increase fuel efficiency for our customers and improve the passenger experience. Our collaboration with Russell Athletic is a fabulous opportunity to utilize the strength and lightweight characteristics of 787 carbon fiber to support elite athletes on the field." - Julie Felgar, Managing Director of Boeing Commercial Airplanes' Environmental Strategy.

Recycled Carbon Fiber:

Boeing researchers have spent a considerable amount of resources to prove that carbon fiber yields tremendous potential for reducing waste. Particularly, Boeing has unearthed that recycled 777 and 787 carbon-fiber-reinforced-plastic (CFRP) serves as a viable alternative for "new" plastic in numerous high-end industrial manufacturing applications.

As shown below, recycled carbon fiber can be produced at approximately 70 percent lower costs than novel carbon fiber, using 5% less energy, yet the performance is the same.

carbon fiber*Source:

It must not go untold that carbon fiber serves far further purposes than shoulder pads.

Recently published on Boeing's website, the aerospace manufacturer is collaborating with (donating $212,000 and carbon fiber material to) Washington State University and the Washington Stormwater Center to research the application of recycled carbon fiber composites for use in permeable pavements.

Permeable pavement enables stormwater to penetrate into the underlying soil, where the water is filtered naturally and the pollutants are removed (Environmental Protection Agency). Currently, permeable pavements can be found lining small side streets and parking lots, but the concrete has generally been considered too soft for the more heavily-traveled roads. The objective of Boeing's research is to ascertain if permeable pavement could become stronger with the recycled carbon fiber composite input.

one mans trash

The concept of repurposing products and material inputs is not novel to Boeing and Russell Athletic.

As examined recently on TheSustainableInvestor, researchers at Ford Motor Company and H.J. Heinz have spent the last two years developing an alternative to petroleum-based plastic for cars: tomato-based car parts.


Researchers at Heinz, eager to put to use the waste from the two million tons of tomatoes per year used for ketchup, have been collaborating with researchers at Ford Motor Co., eager to meet the company's robust environmental agenda. The two renowned brands have spent countless hours examining and testing the feasibility of the use of tomato fibers in vehicle manufacturing, as natural fiber composites (e.g. tomato parts) are cooked at lower temperatures than alternative inputs, and thus produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacturing process.

Pork Rind Sweater, Anyone? From Farm Waste to Garments

On the more peculiar end of the repurposing spectrum, a doctoral biomaterials student, Phillip Stossel, has been researching the process of turning agricultural waste into sweaters.

The motivation to turn the skin, bones and tendons of vertebrates into a wearable fiber comes from an enormous supply of waste. The raw material, namely, slaughterhouse waste, accumulates at about 10 million tons per year in the European Union and the global gelatin market is expected to reach 450,000 tons in 2018.

Stossel and team began with gelatin from pig skin, heating and spinning the gelatin until it was transformed into filaments. After twisting the filaments into yarn strands, using chemicals to cross-link the molecules, and then introducing formaldehyde and lanolin from sheep wool, the scientists were able to turn gelatin yarn into a water-resistant product. The next test-phase entailed knitting the gelatin yarn into a glove and comparing its characteristics with a glove lined with merino wool. The research team found similar thermal resistance and insulation traits, but acknowledged that fully treated gelatin yarn was 55% weaker than merino wool. But, alas, a sweater was born.


As sustainability drifts to the forefront of conversation, companies struggle to market sustainable efforts to a consumer not quite there. Despite the numerous surveys and studies insisting consumers claim they are more likely to buy products from socially-responsible companies, the simple truth is that sustainability, by and large, does not outweigh the relevance of cost, quality, and/or performance when it comes to actual purchase behavior.

The ideal state of the world would be to coerce consumers and investors to care about sustainability. The ideal state of the world would be if such consumers and investors rewarded corporations for pursuing sustainable initiatives, and punished corporations for missing costless opportunities.

Changing long-lived social behavior is an arduous task.

While some believe that conservatism augments in a direct correlation with age, there is an opposing school of thought which contends just the opposite: it is not that people become more conservative with time, rather their views become amalgamated into the status quo until challenged by the next generation with new beliefs.

Yet, in order to truly change social norms, the power of the aforementioned challenging generation must be vast, enduring, and strong enough to overwhelm prevailing conventional beliefs.

Thus, we should not rely solely on transforming societal beliefs, but instead turn to alternative solutions. Repurposing goods not only mitigates waste, vastly saves energy, reduces production and thus optimistically also consumption, but it is also a tremendous business model for collaboration and for sustainability. The advent of technology, an increasing recognition of the environmental crisis on behalf of humanity, and an innovative generation of millennials desperately seeking to embark on careers with "purpose" all exist as positive inputs to the prosperity of repurposing.

But, repurposing old materials and creating entirely novel products from waste components takes a significant amount of time and capital expenditure in the short-term, which can be a deterrent to managers and shareholders focused on the bottom line. This myopic view results in risk-averse behavior on behalf of corporate executives. Regulation may become paramount.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the existence of a tax credit or otherwise economic incentive for the repurposing of goods would likely result in a multitude of projects that reduce waste and carbon emissions.

We are living in a world with increasingly finite resources.

pollution   starving-child-5

Hats off to Boeing+Russell Athletic, Heinz+Ford, and a plethora of other initiatives developing around the globe.

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