Trek Bicycle, today, announced an ambitious carbon fiber recycling program designed to help stem the production of composite waste that was previously deemed very difficult to recycle or re-task for other uses aside from stuffing landfills.
Trek say they have already completed a three-month trial program with South Carolina-based Materials Innovation Technologies and its subsidiary, MIT-RCF, and are now heading into the new initiative full-steam, recycling all carbon fiber scrap produced in their US facilities.
Trek media relations man Eric Bjorling tells BikeRadar that they are already sending "between 3,500 and 4,500lb (1,590-2,040kg)" of scrap each month, including all warranty frames, frames and parts that have been tested or broken in testing, uncured trimmings, and out-of-spec molded parts. Bjorling says the actual figures vary depending on the number of warranty frames, number of non-compliant parts made and total production numbers but it's an impressive figure nonetheless.
Projected over a full year and taking the high-end of that range into account, Trek and MIT-RCF's collaborative project will keep 54,000lb (24,500kg) of scrap carbon fiber in some sort of useful circulation, as compared to the current alternative when the materials would otherwise languish, mostly unaffected by environmental factors for a veritable eternity.
"It is still very difficult to recycle carbon fiber," said Bjorling. "Different fiber types, different resin types, varying part size, shape, and thickness, are just some of the challenges that complicate recycling efforts. Collection, sorting, transportation, reclamation, reuse and the costs associated with each of these also play into the complication of recycling this material."
Trek and MIT-RCF didn’t go into more precise detail on how the reclaimed carbon fiber would be used but other carbon fiber recycling research programs have shown a wide range of possibilities. While the chopped-up materials won't offer the same high stiffness and strength benefits of de novo long-fiber materials, the resultant bits can still be used to reinforce other polymer-based parts and ground-up bits can also be used as fillers in automotive tires or industrial building materials like asphalt.
"Right now all of the recycled materials are going to MIT for their process and usage," Bjorling continued. "The material can be used in non-structural automotive and aerospace parts but a whole range of possibilities exist."
Currently, that range of possibilities does not, however, include integrating the reclaimed bits back into new bicycle parts. Bjorling says Trek is still looking into ways to do just that, though.
"The next piece of the puzzle for us is to come full circle and create something new for the cycling industry out of our recycled materials but that development is ongoing."
Some may suspect that Trek is embarking on this endeavor purely for financial reasons but Bjorling is adamant that this isn't the case.
"This is a service that we pay for," he said. "It adds cost and time to the manufacturing process but it’s the right thing to do. As skeptical as some people may be, it’s the truth. It’s certainly not a cost-cutting measure. More sustainable business practices is really a driving force around here. Last year we went to wind power for our Wisconsin facilities and this is the next step.
"We know that there are other companies in the composites industry looking for solutions to recycle carbon fiber", Bjorling continued. "We hope that our efforts will encourage the rest of the bike industry to start looking into the potential that it has. The more people working towards it, the greater the potential for innovation and change."