Spirit of giving is central to Cleveland-area company’s blades-to-benches business

Spirit of giving is central to Cleveland-area company’s blades-to-benches business

A Cleveland-area company hopes corporate and charitable sponsors will want to share a piece of the circular economy.

Canvus is counting on a sponsorship model to grow the market for the benches, picnic tables, and other outdoor furniture it makes from recycled wind turbine blades. The company started shipping its products in August and has installed more than 200 pieces so far in one of the latest attempts to recycle a growing wind industry waste stream.

Cumulative U.S. wind turbine blade waste is projected to exceed 2 million tons by mid-century — a relatively small amount compared to what’s churned out by fossil fuel industries. Still, several companies are working to reduce how much winds up in landfills.

A Canvus Willow bench sits near the new playground at Cleveland Metroparks’ Huntington Beach park. Credit: Kathiann Kowalski / Energy News Network

Due to the size, weight and product cost, Canvus’s designs are best suited for places like parks, schools or other outdoor venues, said Brian Donahue, the company’s vice president for corporate affairs. But many cities, towns and schools are strapped for cash. So, Canvus’s business model emphasizes donors to help put its products in public spaces. Corporate sponsorships, nonprofit organizations or memorials pay for a majority of the products, which go to spots chosen by local communities.

Mark Wahlberg Chevrolet of Avon, Ohio, is among the early sponsors of a Canvus bench. 

“Our community supports us and our business. So it’s our way of putting back into our neighborhood and supporting the people around us,” said general manager Rick Limbers. Plus, “it’s a unique way of using the turbines.”

Plaques on each product identify the donor and provide a QR code. Each code links to a website that can be updated with whatever information the donor wants to feature. So a business might send viewers to its website, product specials or career information. A community group might list upcoming events or information about people being honored. Families can include slideshows and other tributes to loved ones. 

“Creating opportunities for individuals and businesses to give back to their communities is what drives us,” said Mike Crissman, Canvus’s brand communications manager. If the company has calculated right, those opportunities may also provide it with a sustainable business in a circular economy.

There are certainly lots of political subdivisions with public spaces — about 20,000 cities, villages, townships and counties within the United States, by Donahue’s reckoning, plus roughly 7,000 state and national parks. “And then, of course, 141,000 schools with spaces,” from kindergarten through trade schools and universities, he adds.

Canvus made a strategic decision to offer only 11 products, with limited style variations, allowing the company to annually make tens of thousands, depending on the blade supply, Donahue said. Each product comes in one of three colors that can blend in with a natural background, or else the furniture is primed and ready to paint by artists.

“In any given year, there’s like 5,000 to 8,000 [blades] that come down. So we had to go for scale,” he said. “And in order to do that, you can’t make super unique products that take forever to make.”

Scaled up, the Avon plant could process about 1,500 blades per year, Donahue said. Additional machinery could also be installed to process blades for other possible uses.

Cut turbine blade pieces wait to be made into furniture at Canvus’s factory. Credit: Kathiann Kowalski / Energy News Network

Focusing on a potential market matters for any company looking to innovate and offer a new product, said Rick Stockburger, president and CEO of BRITE Energy Innovators, a local clean energy business development hub that is not involved with Canvus. For its part, BRITE insists that the innovators it works with be able to show a market need for their products.

“The greatest science isn’t necessarily the greatest product,” Stockburger said. “If you’re not understanding markets and developing products that people want to buy at a price that makes you a profit, we’re never going to solve this clean energy transition and climate change.”

Beyond benches

The challenge of dealing with decommissioned wind blades will grow in future years. A 2021 analysis in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recovery estimates there will be between 10,000 and 20,000 blades coming down from turbines annually from 2027 through 2040.

Some doubt whether Canvus or other repurposing companies will make a significant dent in the disposal problem. “In general, there are a lot of similar repurposing concepts and efforts around,” said George Xydis, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark and adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University who has also worked in the wind industry. 

A part of a turbine blade forms the basis for a bench at Canvus’s showroom. Credit: Kathiann Kowalski / Energy News Network

Other examples of wind turbine blade recycling include a Veolia North America plant in northeastern Missouri that basically shreds old turbine blades for use in cement kilns. The plant has processed more than 3,600 blades since it opened in 2020, according to Denise Kopko, the company’s senior vice president for environmental solutions and services.

“The pioneering solution we developed has evolved into a working business model by taking advantage of the scale and volume of decommissioned turbine blades and using the blade components as a replacement of raw material as well as an alternative fuel source for the manufacturing of cement,” Kopko said. “By replacing a percentage of fossil fuel demand in cement manufacturing, we are able to help the industry reduce its carbon footprint, while also helping the wind energy industry — and its message of green power — come full circle by keeping the end-of-life blades out of landfills and scattered stockpiles.”

Cement making is generally carbon intensive, because there’s both a need for high heat and because the chemical reactions to make cement release carbon dioxide. Kopko said Veolia’s product can reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 27%.

Other companies aim to separate glass or polymers from wood and other parts of a blade, including Carbon Rivers and REGEN. The glass or polymers can then be used for other applications. A Danish company, Miljøskærm, shreds blades to extract fiberglass and then uses it to make highway noise barriers.

Yet more will be needed, according to Xydis, who co-authored a study on wind blade waste earlier this year in the journal Environmental Process & Sustainable Energy. The work “underscores the importance of developing technologies for full decomposition to ensure the long-term viability of the wind energy sector,” he said.

Vestas announced last February that it had come up with a way to break down epoxy resin from turbine blades into virgin-grade materials. And in 2022, the first Siemens Gamesa RecyclableBlade was installed at a German wind project.

For now, Canvus is working hard to promote its furniture business, while also exploring other products that could be made from parts of retired blades.

“Why destroy the blade?” Donahue asks. “It’s so strong. It’s so hard to destroy. Why can’t we look at it differently?”

Editor’s note: There is no relation between reporter Kathiann M. Kowalski and Canvus co-founder and managing director Parker Kowalski.

Spirit of giving is central to Cleveland-area company’s blades-to-benches business is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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