Bicycles are supposed to be an alternative that gives people freedom and mobility without the environmental impacts associated with cars.
But bikes are not without their environmental scruples. Chief among them for the past decade or so has been the development and production of carbon frames and components that, by and large, have become nothing more than litter after they have reached the end of their lifespan.
As a general rule, carbon is lighter and stronger than metal alloy alternatives. That makes it the material of choice for higher-end bicycle frames and components.
But since carbon first came on the scene, companies have been grappling with ways to cut back on the waste it produces both on the front and back end. One example of front-end ideas to limit waste is the growing popularity of hookless rim designs that allow for more uniformity and less scrap during development, but there are many more.
On the back end, recycling carbon has been much more of a headache.
Recycling Carbon Fiber
In the past, recycling carbon from bicycles was even more complex and highly cost-prohibitive. It meant breaking finished carbon materials down and separating them from binding resins to extract fibers for manufacturers to repurpose.
Salvaging fibers that are long enough to use always posed a serious challenge. Furthermore, much of the material from those processes lost much of its strength and stiffness.
That meant that despite the best intentions of companies and riders seeking to offload their old or damaged bikes responsibly, thousands upon thousands of bikes would inevitably end up in landfills. Even so, recycling carbon from bike frames has long been an industry goal many large and small manufacturers have worked toward for years.
Early Carbon Recycling
Trek and Specialized announced their intent to recycle carbon frames more than 10 years ago. Their programs included allowing riders to take their bikes to a shop, which would then hand them over to a recycling partner for processing.
Colorado-based Alchemy Bikes partnered with Vartega Carbon Fiber Recycling in 2016 to launch a recycling program of their own.
“As part of the agreement, Alchemy will provide Vartega with its scrap carbon fiber for recycling in Vartega’s novel chemistry-based recycling process,” the brand said at the time.
“This allows Alchemy to divert hundreds of pounds of scrap from landfill every year. Alchemy is also looking at ways to incorporate recycled carbon fiber into its bikes and find ways to incorporate it back into their supply chain.”
These processes involved recycling traditional thermoset carbon. This type of carbon relies upon resin or epoxy to bind fibers together into a robust and finished design.
Conventional thermoset resin requires a lot of labor to refine and recycle. During the build process, a carbon product that comes out of a mold also requires finishing through sanding, which results in waste and particles that end up who knows where. Many brands all but ruled out recycling carbon because of the expense.
Newer technology seems to be a better option for brands hoping to make a more sustainable product. Thermoplastic carbon fiber swaps traditional resins with plastics or advanced nylon polymer agents, which increase the strength of their finished products and make them much easier to recycle. Brands using thermoplastics in their carbon products include Guerrilla Gravity, Instinctiv, Evil, and Revel, among others.
Thermoplastic Carbon Fiber
Colorado-based Revel Bikes, headed by founder Adam Miller, has committed to thermoplastic carbons in some of its products. Revel’s RW series wheels feature Utah-based CSS Composites’ FusionFiber, which cuts resin out completely. Long-chain polymers bind the carbon filaments instead of the standard and more brittle epoxies and resins.
CSS Composites says its process creates a 100% recyclable product and produces no waste or carbon dust, along with lower emissions.
“In fact, for over two years now, we have not thrown away any composite material,” CSS said on its website.
Miller founded Revel in 2019 and has worked in the industry for years. He traveled overseas frequently to see manufacturing facilities that produce carbon fiber.
“The sanding room is the room that you walk into in any factory, good or bad, and it’s not that inspiring,” he said. “The workers are oftentimes not wearing masks that are sanding carbon and epoxy in there and other chemicals, and then it kind of gets washed into a drain and not processed the right way.”
Miller said there had been strides in global manufacturing centers to limit waste and protect workers. Still, there’s only so much modification possible to the process through which manufacturers create and recycle carbon fiber.
“The bottom line is there was nothing economically feasible out there,” he said.
That’s why Miller teamed up with CSS Composites to create wheels from the cutting-edge thermoplastic FusionFiber.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Miller said. “It’s cleaner, better, and it’s made here a few hours away from our facility, so we can drive over to the factory when we need to check on something.”
Other Notable Thermoplastic Products
Revel isn’t the only company moving into thermoplastics. Evil Bikes also produces its Loopholes wheels using FusionFiber, and more companies and products are primed to join.
Colorado-based Revved Industries creates its thermoplastic Revved Carbon used in its Guerrilla Gravity bikes. Like Revel, Revved says that compared to thermoset carbon, thermoplastics are more cost-effective and offer a more consistent finished product through automation, not to mention a safer environment for workers.
They also claim to produce a product with about three times the impact resistance while offering similar weight and stiffness.
Is Thermoplastic Carbon Fiber Less Expensive?
Thermoplastic carbon still is in the infant stage in the bicycle world. While it promises to increase efficiency, reduce waste, and become a much greener option for bike manufacturers, it still has a good deal of cost baked into its production system.
That cost primarily comes from the research and development of all of the components of production and a domestic supply chain to rival those that have existed in the international thermoset carbon industry for more than a decade.
Miller said the material requires such high melting and curing points that manufacturers must use tool steel to create tools and molds. That type of steel is far more expensive than regular steel or aluminum used in thermoset carbon.
But once more companies begin using the products and manufacturers can produce more, prices could fall below that of traditional carbon. This is an emerging market, and startup costs are still high.
“It’s very expensive right now. I don’t want to say cost-prohibitive, but it’s only going to be cost-effective at scale, and the reason for that is the expense of the tooling,” Miller said.
Where Does the Recycled Material Go?
Much of the recycled carbon in use today does not become the identical product from which it came. However, it is finding a new life in related products or entirely different markets, including the aerospace industry, which has a heavy footprint in thermoset and thermoplastic carbons.
For Revel’s part, it currently sells tire levers made from recycled carbon.
“Technically, it cannot be recycled into the exact same rim again, but it can be recycled into a block of material that can be either machined just like a block of metal or injection molded,” Miller said.
Miller added that it’s important to remember that building a new system with a new material that will result in a significantly reduced environmental impact is a journey that takes time.
He said the best thing manufacturers could do for the environment is not to create anything, whether that be wheels, frames, or anything else. But that isn’t practical.
“My goal is to just do everything we can a little bit better and just work on improving that over time. These wheels are not ‘environmentally friendly,’ but they are certainly significantly more environmentally friendly than other carbon fiber wheels,” Miller said.
“I think that’s kind of key. We’re learning. We’re working with our vendors, with our manufacturers to try to do things better and better for the environment because, you know, we all ride bikes. We want to have nice fresh air to breathe. So I think that’s a cause everybody can get behind.”