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"Shredding" Redefined: WSU Recycles Ski Gear

PHOTO: This is what skis, snowboards, helmets and ski boots look like after going through a six-step grinding process to recycle them. Courtesy of SIA Snow Sports Recycling Program.
PHOTO: This is what skis, snowboards, helmets and ski boots look like after going through a six-step grinding process to recycle them. Courtesy of SIA Snow Sports Recycling Program.
February 4, 2013

PULLMAN, Wash. - One of the newest facets of the snow sports industry is recycling used ski equipment, and it's giving Washington State University (WSU) a chance to shine. At the school's Composite Engineering Center, students are grinding up mountains of old skis and snowboards, boots and helmets, and experimenting with turning them into other products.

WSU professor Karl Englund says ski gear is made to be tough, so it has been quite a challenge.

"There are different types of polymers in there that all have different attributes, that have different processing requirements, and a lot of 'em don't blend together very well," he explained. "Thus, it becomes more of an economic hurdle to get these things into a usable material again."

They are making the ground-up ski gear into panels similar to particleboard that can be used in construction. Other possibilities are making flooring and blocks for landscaping, or incorporating the material into cultured rock.

Englund said manufacturing the products is only the first "mogul" to navigate. There also has to be a market for them.

"We are dealing with a lot of different commercial and industrial clients," he said, "and that's always the final line item: 'Well, can you make money out of this?' We're very familiar with that. Yeah, we can make a product out of it, but are you going to be able to sell it?"

He said ski areas could be a good niche market, with the advantage of being able to tell customers that their decks, counters or tabletops are made of recycled skis. The ski industry also is working on equipment designs that can one day be deconstructed and reworked into new ski gear, he added.

In the meantime, the engineering students have had to figure out puzzles such as how to extract and separate the different metal components of ski boots. Englund called it a good learning experience.

"It's fun," he said. "although it's kind of a pain because of the glass fiber, which is kind of itchy. If you're grinding it up and making it into small particles, the glass fiber is like working with fiberglass insulation. But I think a lot of people just enjoy the fact of utilizing this material and recycling it."

So far, the trade group Snow Sports Industries America is only collecting used equipment in Colorado and Utah, but is looking to expand the Snow Sports Recycling Program into other states.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA