For people in occupations where body armor is part of the job, a ballistic vest becomes an integral part of their life. It’s a comfortable relationship and, with the newer soft ballistic panels, a vest will, over time, mold itself almost perfectly to the wearer. Your vest is an indispensable part of your equipment and becomes like that favorite sweatshirt from college both in terms of familiarity and comfort.
Unfortunately, like any other piece of service equipment, body armor has a finite lifespan. Any ballistic panel that does its job and stops a bullet or grenade fragment has to be retired. Even if a panel is not stressed by a ballistic impact, over time advances in weapons and ammunition means a vest needs to be upgraded to meet a more evolved threat environment.
The materials used in ballistic panels will also lose performance value over time, especially when worn extensively. Body armor manufacturers will have a fixed period of time when they will guarantee ballistic performance. All ballistic panels and bulletproof vests will have a retirement date printed right on the label. The service lifetime of ballistic products is usually five to ten years.
“A ballistic product will retain some function after its expiration date,” says Iwan Luiten, Marketing Manager at EnGarde, a European body armor manufacturer. “But we can no longer guarantee performance to the tested specifications. Expired ballistic products should be retired.”
Don’t Just Trash It
While it’s tough letting go of an old friend how your body armor exists its functional life is just as important as taking care of it during its time in service. Disposing of body armor in the trash or a municipal landfill is far from an optimal solution. There is too much opportunity for body armor in the trash to be salvaged and removed from the waste stream. Disposed products can end up on the black market and make their way into the wrong hands. Even if it’s not diverted from the waste process, a ballistic vest is going to remain in a sanitary landfill essentially forever as the component materials break down very slowly compared to other types of waste.
A small number of vests and body armor will find their way into police and law enforcement training academies to get recruits used to working in body armor and a protective vest. Surplus vests are usually clearly marked as training equipment. Since these are not being worn for ballistic safety, the lifespan can be as long as the exterior fabric can hold together. The amount of surplus equipment that can be used in this manner is quite small and most law enforcement agencies will likely need to consider other options for disposal of out of service body armor.
Recycling – Your Best Option
The best thing you can do with excess and expired body armor is sending it out to be recycled. There are companies that specialize in recycling the materials used in body armor and ballistic panels. While none of the recycled ballistic materials will be reused in bulletproof vests or body armor, there are a surprising number of uses for salvaged components. Your old vest may end up as a pair of cut-resistant gloves, boat rope, brake pads or car tire treads. It could even end up as part of your kid’s outdoor track at school or an ingredient in bricks or other building materials. There are dozens of companies that can use the raw materials of your old ballistic vest to make a fascinating variety of new products.
Pick a Reputable Company
Picking a reputable ballistic recycling company will ensure that your old vest never makes it into criminal hands. There have been incidents in the past where surplused body armor ended up on the black market instead of a recycling facility, so it’s important to know your vendor.
Companies like Fiber Brokers International in Brent, Alabama, will first establish if they can recycle your particular ballistic product or whether they need to refer you to another vendor. If they can accept your old vests, the recycling process can proceed. During transportation, ballistic materials are sealed in boxes with tamper-evident tape. Even while awaiting recycling, ballistic panels are stored in secure facilities until the inventory process is completed.
“We start off by issuing a Certificate of Destruction,” says William V. (Trip) McCrary III, Vice President of Procurement and Sales at Fiber Brokers. “So our customers have the documentation they need to demonstrate compliance with NIJ disposal standards.”
From there tactical and ballistic vests are stripped of the recyclable materials in the shell, including the nylon webbing. The ballistic materials are removed from their containment bags and put through a shredder that, literally, pulls the tightly woven threads apart. The separated fibers can then be cut to a specific length to accommodate customer requirements.
Fiber Brokers work with a variety of manufacturers to provide high quality raw materials that range from fibers to pulp.
While it’s tough parting with your comfortable old ballistic vest, there’s a lot of peace of mind in knowing it’s being handled properly, stored securely and recycled into a variety of new uses.
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