Recycled Kayak takes flight
Lead organisation: Loughborough University
Creative Outreach for Resource Efficiency (CORE) supports the delivery of a vibrant and creative outreach programme. CORE helps academics to “get out of the lab” – supporting them to engage with new audiences, to provoke public debate, and to be visual and creative.
Funded by EPSRC, CORE works in partnership with three research projects – also funded by EPSRC – to communicate high-impact world-class science.
One of the projects that CORE works with is the EXHUME project. This investigated the challenges of recycling carbon-fibre composites – from looking at the chemical engineering required to the economic viability of developing a market for recycled materials.
The EXHUME team wanted to raise awareness of the possible uses of recycled carbon-fibre materials and how they can be used to create new goods, therefore reducing the amount of carbon-fibre waste being sent to landfill. The engagement project involved the team taking carbon-fibre waste from the aerospace industry, creating a racing kayak from the recycled fibre, participating in the gruelling Devizes to Westminster international canoe race, and working with PR experts to engage with new audiences, including high profile manufacturers. The project show cased that recycled carbon fibres can be used in demanding situations, and as a result, the academics were able to reach new audiences and make new connections with potential industrial partners.
The aims of the project were to:
- Raise awareness with industrial partners that recycled carbon fibre could perform to a high technical standard.
- Raise awareness with the wider public that there is a need to recycle composite waste, and not send it to landfill.
- Raise awareness of the research being carried out by leading universities to tackle environmental issues through resource efficiency.
The primary audience for the project were potential industrial and business partners who currently use virgin carbon fibre to create high performance goods including the automotive sector and sports equipment manufacturers.
How it started
The motivation for the project arose when the EXHUME project exhibited at the Advanced Engineering Show at the NEC in 2015. The lead academic, Professor Gary Leeke, realised from the conversations he had with visitors to their stand that manufacturers were interested in the potential offered by recycled composites, but were concerned about their technical performance.
Gary was inspired by his hobby as a keen kayaker, to create a world-first – a kayak created out of recycled carbon-fibre and to put it to the test, in the ultimate ordeal of human and kayak endurance – the International Devizes to Westminster canoe race. With support from CORE, Gary engaged a PR agency specialising in environmental issues, to ensure that the target audiences were reached, and that his messages were disseminated to a wide audience.
Several partnerships were established that were key to the success of the project. Firstly, the PI Professor Gary Leeke had to find appropriate carbon-fibre waste that would suit the needs of the project. He negotiated with an aerospace manufacturer who supplied the appropriate grade waste that would otherwise be sent to landfill.
Gary then had to find a kayak manufacturer that was prepared to take the recycled composite material and work with him to create a race-worthy boat. Kirton Kayaks in the UK agreed to help, and worked with him to create a kayak from recycled composites created in the lab at the University of Birmingham. It was essential to keep a dialogue with the manufacturer and to address their concerns – for example the first batch of recycled carbon fibre was not flexible enough to drape over the boat template, so adjustments had to be made to the processing to create a more pliable material.
PR agency Creative Concern, was brought in to ensure that the maximum exposure was gained for the project, with the right audiences. The key to success here was to provide the agency with a clear brief, and to work with them to ensure that they had the information they needed at the right time. It was also vital to allow time to speak with the media, and for checking of statements and quotes. A social media campaign was put in place and it was important that arrangements were made for photography, filming and Twitter feed to capture the race as it happened.
What did you do?
- Negotiated an agreement with aerospace manufacturer to use carbon fibre waste that would have otherwise been sent to landfill for recycling purposes.
- Established a partnership with Kayak manufacturer to build prototype boat.
- Developed lab processes so that large amounts of material could be manufactured and supplied to the Kayak manufacture.
- Persuaded a colleague to take part in Devizes to Westminster race in an untested craft.
- Trained hard!
- Engaged a PR company, developed the brief for them and identified target audiences, including manufacturers.
- Gave interviews to radio and newspapers. Approved press releases and quotes.
- Organised Twitter activity in advance.
- Engaged photographer and video crew to capture training and race.
- Took part in race – had to quit after 16 hours paddling, due to the health of the kayak partner and the extreme weather conditions.
- Developed messages following the withdrawal from the race – that the humans were unable to continue, but that the prototype boat was fine.
- Liaison with film crew, photographer, and the PR agency to continue to disseminate the messages.
- Continued Twitter activity.
- Post event
- Followed up press and PR activity (still on-going 6 months later!)
- Wrote a blog for EPSRC website.
- Set up and attended meetings with manufacturers.
- Approved articles that were published in the EPSRC’s Pioneer magazine, as well as in sector magazines in UK, USA, Europe and South Africa.
- Monitored press and social media activity.
- Evaluated success of project (on going).
Several evaluation methods were used: tracking of press, media and social media allowed for the reach of the PR campaign to be monitored, and to see if the right key messages were disseminated to a wide range of audiences.
The quality and quantity of meetings set up with key manufacturers and other stakeholders and their outcomes were monitored. As a result of monitoring, some of the messages were amended to make sure they were appropriate to different audiences and the accompanying leaflet was updated to explain the science behind the project.
Key lessons learnt
- Having a “hook” – worked well, the risks were high, but resulted in high impact. Using a PR company that were experts in the field, (yet did not charge a massive amount!) yielded greater impact than expected.
- There were risks that it was difficult to foresee. For example the team under-estimated the time it would take to process material of appropriate quality.
- Taking time to communicate effectively with partners was essential.
- There were some surprising outcomes with the project resulting in unexpected linkages and contacts that were outside of the academic “norm”. For example the team has now built up a network of contacts from leading manufacturers in the composite sector, and have been invited to take part in NGO conferences and policy discussions. It has raised the profile of the EXHUME project and established trust in its ability to deliver results with key industrial partners.
- “Without the help of the PR agency, we would not have reached a global audience and dissemination would just have been through traditional academic papers and conferences,” said Professor Gary Leeke. “It has been great to have interest in our research from outside of the academic circle, and has opened up access to non-technical audiences.”