Forget What You Thought You Knew About Carbon Fiber
Exciting new technologies and scalable recycling solutions mean outdoor gear manufacturers and consumers may no longer have to choose between durable and sustainable. They can have both.
Carbon fiber is supposed to be a miracle material. It’s ultralight, super strong, and—at least when it comes to bicycle frames—it leaves aluminum in the dust.
The Flipside of Carbon Fiber
But until recently, carbon fiber’s desirable performance qualities also came with significant undesirable sustainability tradeoffs: Large amounts of carbon fiber waste are typically created in the process of making those products. Because of the way in which it is cured—using a polymer binding compound—carbon fiber has traditionally been extremely difficult to recycle. Few statistics exist about the amount of carbon fiber sent to landfills in the United States, but carbon fiber recycler Vartega, based in Golden, Colorado, estimates that the world produces about 90,000 tons of carbon fiber each year, based on its own market research, and about a third of that is produced in the United States. Vartega also claims that roughly a third of carbon fiber is wasted during the manufacturing process.
A Potential Solution
In an effort to divert this waste from landfills, carbon fiber recycling plants like Vartega and Carbon Fiber Recycling, Inc. (CFR) have begun popping up in the United States. In a way, it’s the next frontier of recycling, and the claims about how much these plants can process and how efficiently they can do it are impressive.
Vartega, for example, claims that its recycled carbon fiber has comparable strength attributes with virgin carbon fiber. The company does not release current statistics about the amount of carbon fiber it recycles annually, but it’s working to produce mobile recycling modules that can be moved between manufacturing plants or installed permanently on-site, allowing manufacturers to close the loop themselves. Founder & CEO Andrew Maxey says Vartega expects to install the first module later this year and that it will be able to recycle 100 tons of carbon fiber annually.
Carbon Fiber Recycling, which has facilities in Bethel, Connecticut, and Tazewell, Tennessee, says its recycling process involves completely self-sufficient continuous thermolysis equipment. The machines run on the fumes released from the polymer resins in the products’ curing agents, according to Tim Spahn, executive director of licensing and sales. The company has also engineered ways to remove scrap metal and other materials so nothing is wasted. Spahn says CFR expects to be able to recycle 2,000 tons of carbon fiber waste each year, at a cost significantly lower than junking it.
The company charges $75 per ton to recycle carbon fiber waste. By comparison, it costs about $250 to send the same amount of carbon fiber waste to the landfill in California, according to Spahn. He notes that companies do have to pay to ship the waste to CFR, but often they’re forced to pay to ship it to a landfill, too, especially if they have large quantities. Once materials go through its facility, CFR can sell the processed material to companies who want recycled fiber.
The Outdoor Brands Giving It a Shot
Alchemy Bikes, which makes carbon fiber bicycles in Denver, recycles its scraps with Vartega. Matt Maczuzak, an owner and chief design officer for Alchemy, says he uses recycled carbon fiber to build prototypes when he’s working on a new bike design.
Vartega’s Maxey says it’s a misconception that recycled carbon fiber—which is made from carbon that has been cut shorter—isn’t as strong as the virgin stuff. But there are different uses for both: Spahn says you wouldn’t use recycled carbon in, say, an airplane or safety gear. But it’s a great material for tennis rackets and paddles, for example.
In North America, outdoor brands typically want to recycle finished-product components rather than excess fiber. Norco Bicycles had long looked for a way to responsibly dispose of carbon components. For more than five years, the company stockpiled damaged and returned frames. In 2018, the company discovered CFR and shipped a massive quantity of frames to Tennessee for recycling.
“This is our first initiative at recycling frames,” says PJ Hunton, senior design engineer for Norco. “Ten years ago, we didn’t really make all that many carbon bicycles, so we didn’t really get all that many back from warranty [issues].” But as soon Norco began making more carbon fiber bikes, they began receiving some warranty returns, and they didn’t want to throw them in the garbage. According to Hunton, that’s when the company began exploring recycling options.
Cannondale Bicycles, based in Wilton, Connecticut, was also only too happy to ship parts to Carbon Fiber Recycling, says Kevin Kane, R&D business and corporate outreach manager for Cannondale’s parent company, Dorel Sports. In total, Cannondale expects to send a couple hundred pounds of material to CFR each quarter.
But the real problem Kane sees is abroad, not stateside. Cannondale used to make all its bicycles in the United States. But competition forced them to move production to Asia to lower costs. Kane says that the vast majority of the carbon fiber waste associated with their bikes accrues there, not here. The main source of Cannondale’s stateside waste is prototype frames and damaged parts. Chinese researchers are working to expand recycling techniques and availability.
That’s kind of the catch with recycling carbon fiber in the United States: It sounds fantastic, and it’s a step in the right direction. But even if we recycle all the post-consumer carbon fiber we can here in the United States, it’s only a fraction of the total waste that’s produced globally. It’s hard to say exactly how much carbon fiber is wasted in manufacturing, as the percentage varies wildly based on what’s being made, and there are no widely accepted statistics about the total amount of production or waste, either in the United States or globally.
Waste Not, Want Not
Think of it like cutting out material to make a shirt or using a cookie cutter on dough. Sometimes, the shape of the thing you’re making is easier to arrange on the fabric, so you can make cuts closer together and minimize the scrap left over. But sometimes, it’s a shape that requires more dead space between cuts, so there’s more waste.
Spahn and Maxey say waste can be as high as 30 percent. Philip Schell, executive VP of carbon fiber at Zoltek, which manufactures carbon fiber for a variety of uses, including sporting goods, says that sounds pretty high.
“Carbon fiber is a relatively expensive material, and people don’t want to waste if they can at all avoid it,” Schell says. Zoltek recycles as much of its own raw materials as possible
So, what else can you do on a brand, retail or consumer level? Ask questions.
Be as informed as possible about exactly how your goods are being made and exactly what’s happening to manufacturing waste. Join Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group to collaborate with other suppliers and brands working hard to reduce impacts in supply chains and keep products and materials out of landfills. Work together to evaluate your practices using the Higg Index and encourage or partner with your manufacturer to make small changes that could add up to a big difference.
“It’s kind of the same philosophy we take on human rights: We refuse to work with factories who don’t treat their people well. So, we’re not going to work with factories who don’t have the same kind of sustainability [mindset] we do.” — PJ Hunton, senior design engineer for Norco
Norco is trying to do just that. The company is working on a program to incentivize its retailers to ship broken parts and frames back to them for recycling. And they’re also working to make recycling capabilities a part of their vendor selection process.
Hunton says that he considers the quality of a factory’s recycling program when choosing its frame builders. “It’s kind of the same philosophy we take on human rights: We refuse to work with factories who don’t treat their people well. So, we’re not going to work with factories who don’t have the same kind of sustainability [mindset] we do. If they receive requests like this from us and start to realize this is going to affect their bottom line, hopefully they can change the way they do business.”