Recycling carbon fiber may be complicated but Trek Bicycle decided that keeping this valuable material out of landfills was the right thing to do regardless. This past spring the company, which designs and manufactures bicycles, launched an ambitious full-scale carbon fiber recycling program at its Waterloo, Wis.-based manufacturing facility.

Trek’s proprietary OCLV (optimum compaction, low void) carbon material, revered by the cycling world for its strength and ultra light-weight properties, has long been considered nearly impossible to recycle. However, this thought only serves to make Trek’s goal to become “zero landfill” more impressive. Until recently, the only course for a carbon fiber bike frame at the end of its lifecycle was to languish in a landfill, becoming an exceedingly long-term environmental burden. Not to mention that in its manufacturing processes and returned product, Trek already sends between 3,500 and 4,500 pounds of carbon composites to the recycling facility each month. With its zero landfill goal, the company projects to divert up to 54,000 pounds of carbon from the landfill to repurpose each year.

Trek collaborates to overcome recycling challenges

After reading an article in Bicycle Retailer magazine on the unique challenges of recycling carbon fiber featuring Trek Senior Composites Manufacturing Engineer James Colegrove, Materials Innovation Technologies (MTI) President and CEO Jim Stike, called Colegrove with the proposal to help Trek become the first bicycle company to recycle carbon fiber. “They had a nearly complete solution for us,” Colegrove recalls.

The recycling partners face challenges like different material grades, recycling streams and a logistical nightmare. The cost of raw carbon fiber depends on the grade of strength and stiffness. “To get the biggest bang for the buck, we need to separate out the different moduli and strengths,” Colegrove, who has been with Trek for over 21 years, explains. That’s why the carbon fiber coming out of Trek’s manufacturing process is recycled in four streams: trimmings (or scraps) of nearly raw, pre-impregnated carbon fiber with epoxy resin left over from cutting pre-forms; noncompliant molded parts; fully assembled warranty frames returned by consumers; and the fourth and most difficult stream the company is trying to implement: end-of-life recycling.“We want consumers to be able to bring their product back to one of our stores when they are done with it to be recycled instead of deposited into a landfill,” Colegrove says.

Another challenge for the partnership is logistics. Trek is located in central Wisconsin, where a truck hauls the material down to its reclamation partner in South Carolina. “We have dealers around the country (and the world) and if everyone wants to recycle their carbon fiber bikes, it will start to become a fairly large logistical nightmare,” Colegrove says. We have to ask, if Trek’s shipping things around then is this recycling program still justified from a carbon footprint standpoint? He contemplates, “We don’t want this material to go into a landfill. We want it repurposed into secondary parts. This works well within the United States but we may need to set up similar programs around the world to minimize the logistical dilemma.”