Though on the one hand the bicycle is perhaps the most basic form of transportation, on the other, it’s possible to spend several thousands of dollars on a bike made from the lightest, most high performance composite aerospace materials available.
Manufacturers of high performance bikes have sought frame materials for lightness, strength, and comfort that also provide the necessary stiffness to maximize the power transfer from the rider to the road. In this quest, materials have evolved from steel alloys to aluminum, and then to more exotic materials such as titanium. Today, carbon fiber is the material of choice, meeting all the performance characteristics, while offering the benefit of being able to be formed into any shape the bicycle designer so chooses. However, while this aerospace material is great to build with, it has been problematic to recycle at end-of-life. But Trek, in conjunction with Materials Innovation Technology (MIT), has implemented a solution to recycle carbon fiber scrap from its US facilities. This will make the material less of an environmental burden, diverting a projected 54,000 lbs of material from landfill to re-purposed use each year.
Gizmag reports that the material for recycling will come from manufacturing waste as well as non-compliant components, along with warranty returned frames. They also state the reclamation process will involve the process of pyrolysis, which entails heating the carbon fiber material in a virtually oxygen free environment, thereby removing the binding resins while leaving the fibers free for re-composition into new products. The source material is chopped up first, which inherently shortens the carbon fibers, causing the recycled material to be less strong. In this regard, the recycling process is actually a down-cycling process. Bicycling.com quotes MIT’s CEO Jim Stike as saying virgin carbon fiber may be used in aircraft, which gets reclaimed for car parts, which gets reclaimed for sporting goods which in turn may be reclaimed for computer cases. Down-cycling indeed, but nonetheless with many valuable iterations. In addition, Composites World suggests that recycled carbon fiber is 70% of the cost of virgin material, so it’s cheaper if used in applications that don’t not need maximal strength. As such, recycled carbon fiber should find a robust market.
However, all that said, Trek deserves for embarking on this program at all. According to Carbon Fiber Gear.com, Trek is incurring a cost to do this, but is proceeding as it deems it the right thing to to do. In terms of the business case, it’s always better if a recycling process is economically justified. However, if Trek sees the future of the bicycle increasingly in carbon fiber terms, they can be applauded for making corporate social responsibility an important end to meet.