Trek embarks on ambitious carbon fiber recycling program

Late model Trek Madone frames on a molding rack; these frames if and when warrantied will be recycled.

Late model Trek Madone frames on a molding rack; these frames if and when warrantied will be recycled. (Image credit: Matt Pacocha)

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 says it has already completed a three-month trial program with South Carolina-based Materials Innovation Technologies and its subsidiary, MIT-RCF, and is now heading into the new initiative full-steam, recycling all carbon fiber scrap produces in its US facilities.

Trek media relations man Eric Bjorling told Cyclingnews that Trek is 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 where 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."

According to Trek's press release, the recycled materials will be, "used in reinforced thermoplastic applications while research and development is ongoing for use in automotive, aerospace, medical, and recreational applications."

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.

"We know that there are other companies in the composites industry looking for solutions to recycle carbon fiber", Bjorling told us. "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."

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