Carbon fibre proved to be a miracle material. It is ultralight, stiff and super strong, and when it comes to bicycle frame constructions, it’s something hard to beat. Everybody wants carbon fibre. This space-age material, which once used to be produced exclusively by professionals, has become sought after by millions of cyclists since the price dropped after the number of carbon-fibre manufacturers grew substantially. Carbon fibre is also easy to form into desired shapes. Moreover, it lasts forever unless something makes it crumble into pieces.
A global issue
The latter cited quality, however, grew into a global problem. As carbon fibre is not biodegradable nor photodegradable, it may last forever. While the bicycle frame will not deteriorate throughout its lifetime, it will also not decompose when you dispose of it.
Photographs of carbon-fibre bicycle frames piled high on the landfills flew around the world, making environmentally conscious cyclists think twice about getting rid of their old carbon-fibre bikes as well as other parts like wheels, cranks, handlebars, and seat posts.
The problem is that unlike the bikes made of steel or aluminium, recycling carbon fibre parts is not a profitable business. At the first glance, it seems that carbon fibre might stay with us for eternity.
Sports goods present an issue to be solved yet they’re almost nothing when compared with the modern jets. For example, one Boeing Dreamliner aircraft’s construction consumes consumes 23 tons of carbon fibre in one year. That’s why the airspace industry was first to introduce a carbon-fibre recycle program in order to prevent carbon fibre from being left wasted one day after Dreamliner planes accomplish their duty.
Damaging of the carbon fibres
The problem of recycling is the structure of the material as such. The strength of the material is given by using long fibres. Once you crush or chop them, which has been an inevitable step in the recycling process so far, the material loses its natural benefits and becomes futile. Two basic attributes – strength and rigidity – were lost when the material had been cut.
To make it even worse, reclaiming the pure carbon fibre required removing resins that work as bonding elements holding the fibres in shape. High costs were another problem we were facing in the carbon fibre recycling process. While the recycling of aluminium or steel proved to be reasonable because we could get material of the same or almost the same quality for less money, with carbon fibre we paid way more money to get a material of a diminished value. Once carbon fibre was cut, we could never use it to build strong fuselages, masts or frames.
More than just water bottles
Is there a chance to make use of second-hand carbon fibre, though? A few years ago, experts from the bicycle industry suggested the production of gear like air pumps or water bottles. Ideas in other industries included designing laptop or mobile phone cases.
Vartega company based in Colorado in the USA announced that the recycled carbon fibre from their plants has comparable strength as the virgin material. Alchemy bicycle manufacturer uses recycled carbon fibre for building prototype bicycles when creating new bicycle designs. Even though the character of carbon fibre alters while recycling and becomes insufficient for use in the aeroplane industry, it’s still great for sports gear including paddles or tennis rackets.
In North America, many bike companies invested in finding a way to recycle carbon fibre. For example, Norco from Canadian Vancouver had stockpiled frames and other components for over five years before discovering a company capable of recycling them. A similar story was repeated in companies like Cannondale or Specialized.
“Thousands of carbon-fibre bicycles end up in landfills each year, and we want to change that by helping to establish a take-back stream for carbon fibre,” the company claims on its website. Based on current carbon-fibre recycling programs used by the aerospace industry, the frames are chopped into smaller sections and the epoxy that holds the fibres in shape is burnt in an oxygen-free environment. The process results in shorter fibres with similar properties as the virgin material, which can be used in many different products.