Carbon recycling… or repair?

Carbon crack repair

Specialized have been trumpeting their new carbon recycling scheme and I like it. Other bike manufacturers offer similar plans and it makes sense on many fronts, indeed it is not just the cycle sector offering this, it is becoming widespread for many carbon products. Although if it sounds green, the energy processes involved in recycling don’t make this a giant leap in sustainability.

I’ve covered the manufacturing process of carbon before to show carbon is really plastic reinforced by carbon fibres. This can be undone with heat, you can melt the epoxy back out and it can be recycled.

At the same time I can’t help wonder if companies have an incentive to offer recycling plans as a means to encourage consumers to dispose of old frames and then buy new ones. It’s cynical, yes.

But we see this in the auto sector where part-exchange and scrappage payments are used to encourage motorists to trade in their old wheels for a new car. Is this the same where disposing of a frame becomes even easier, especially via the channels of major manufacturers?

Because carbon can be repaired. A crack here or a hole their, it can often be fixed and patched. Again to remind you, carbon fibres are matted and woven and in the absence of epoxy, they can be as soft as silk. Repairing carbon is a bit like darning a sock. You name it, it can often be fixed. Fishing rods, kayaks and of course bike frames. There are limits, especially when a carbon fame is bonded to metal, for example the bottom bracket shell.

So if you crash your frame and crack it, you can now recycle it. But don’t forget it can also be repaired and there are several companies offering this service.

15 thoughts on “Carbon recycling… or repair?”

  1. Some of the titanium makers should offer this service as I understand this material is really nasty stuff in terms of environmentally sustainable, taking a huge amount of electricity to create. Steel and aluminum frames are easy to recycle so I applaud the carbon bike importers for getting into recycling, especially if they’ll take any carbon frame, not just the ones with their decals stuck on ’em. Like non-rechargeable batteries and pop bottles, if you sell ’em you should recycle them — at no charge! Automobiles too, for that matter.

  2. Robin: indeed but hopefully the scheme still offers benefits.

    Felipe: thanks, I’ve not had to use one but it looks like many problems can be fixed. Only it comes at a cost, via twitter I am told it can cost $600.

    Larry T: yes, the ti welding is not easy. You need an inert atmosphere to weld and then doing the welding itself is a high-skill job. It can be done done but probably via the manufacturer only.

  3. “Some of the titanium makers should offer this service as I understand this material is really nasty stuff in terms of environmentally sustainable, taking a huge amount of electricity to create.”

    Really? Just because a process requires a lot of electricity doesn’t mean that it is “nasty”. Titanium is a valuable metal, so recycling schemes already exist. On the other hand, it is almost indestructible, so the energy input is required only at source, thereafter it is energy demand is zero. Recycling is only necessary when a frame is damaged. From a cycling perspective, there are far more pros than cons.

    By the way, 95% of titanium production is used for whitening purposes, so avoid “brilliant white” paint, and don’t brush your teeth with toothpaste, if you really want to be an eco warrior. Here’s the source:

  4. I think the cynicism is misplaced here, there are several issues with carbon, most touched upon above, but from a business perspective, it makes sense for specialized as they get a lower cost raw material, with new USP, if they use the recycled carbon frames, if not then I someone else pays for the recycled carbon elsewhere in the industry or another, again making sense for the company.
    Furthermore, I gather specialized are talking of an industry wide scheme and sharing their findings, this is again a potentially more economically and environmentally attractive opportunity for the bike manufacturing industry as a whole, again due to a greener, low cost raw material source. We must think of the ‘waste’ of broken carbon frames as a resource, not just another item to send to landfill (as a hazardous waste).
    Inrng is quite correct in that repair is a far better option environmentally, but if you can’t prevent or reduce the levels of carbon component waste (which the industry could do then recycling is the next best option. I look forward to seeing the results of the Specialized scheme next year.

  5. Birillo’s points are right on. On the rare occasion when I have seen a titanium frame that was beyond repair (usually those old LeMonds that were all over-heated at the cable stop, or had the carbon stays that broke), our recycling man was ecstatic, because the material is pretty damn valuable. He was looking at something like $10 for just a frame, while steel is currently paying $6 per ton.

    All major titanium frame makers (basically Lynskey, and to a lesser extent Litespeed, but some others exist) will repair their frames should you encounter trouble, and Lynskey will repair just about any titanium frame for a fairly reasonable fee. Titanium is certainly not easy to work with, and expertise is required, from according to Ben Serotta, it’s actually easier to fix a Ti frame than even lugged steel.

    Every frame material comes with a fairly large ecological footprint. Where titanium and steel shine “environmentally” is their long-term durability; the supposition that you will buy a frame made of these materials and ride it for the next X-number (long, long time) of years, since it resists denting and destruction, (and in the case of ti, corrosion) so readily. There’s nothing saying that aluminum or carbon will fail so readily, and indeed many of these frames could potentially last a very long time, but anecdotally that does not seem to be the case.

    All that said, recycling plastics is a very tricky process that, depending on who you believe, does or does not yield a net environmental gain. I generally favor recycling, since I feel as though that means my soda bottle/plastic bag/$5000 carbon frame is less likely to end up in the plastic patch in the Pacific.

  6. Is there a monetary reason to recycle your frame? Manufacturers are going to benefit from being able to re use carbon… Shouldn’t there be an incentive?? Discount off new frame etc

  7. I doubt the recycled carbon will be reused to make frames but it certainly can be used for something – keeping it out of the landfill is the goal. As to titanium I was referring to RECYCLING rather than repairs, though it’s good to know the scrap metal guys are happy to pay good money for trashed ti frames, meaning the makers themselves needn’t bother. Sorry if I stepped on your toes Birillo, but the electricity needed to produce titanium does have to be generated from somewhere. I guess aluminum is almost as environmentally unfriendly in this way but recycling programs for this material are easily and widely available, mitigating the situation somewhat. I’m biased a bit from my years in the bike shop, listening to the dentists justify a ti bike purchase to their wives with “but honey, this is the last bike I’ll ever have to buy, it will not rust and will last forever.” Sure, it may be the last bike he will ever HAVE to buy, but we all knew it wouldn’t be the last one he’d WANT to buy.

  8. Perhaps this is the dawn of Hire Purchase for frames and/or bikes? Can’t imagine it will be that far away, especially in these economically challenging times. Personally, apart from pandering to peoples need to “keep up with the Joneses”, the benefits are all for business. It w ould mean that manufacturers would still have people riding their latest models and justify their existence.

    As for sustainability, around 2000 I started looking into the sustainability of different frame materials. Didn’t get very far as I’m not much of a researcher/journo, but I would imagine that there is some data out there about the subject by now. For all the claims of being environmentally friendly, cycling is increasingly moving away from that with an increasing reliance on lightweight materials that have no resiliance to damage and electronic shifting that relies on batteries.

    Personally I’m heading back to Steel frames.

  9. I agree with others that given current technology the ultimate carbon fiber frame “recycling” is actually repair. The VeloNews piece talks about 1 or 2 companies that will get your frame more-or-less “good as new” for $300-400.

    For the more adventurous you can easily do a home repair for $100 in materials, a little research, and a couple hours of spare time. The needed quantities of carbon ply, epoxy, and hardener are so small that the minimum purchase quantities are generally enough to make several repairs. I just sold the leftover materials to a friend since I didn’t plan on breaking any more carbon frames. 😉

    The repair was on a Giant TCR on the downtube and it lasted 3 more years of hard riding. I sold the bike this last year (the buyer was aware of the repair!) and the frame is still going strong.

  10. Or for the same dough the carbon repair shops charge you can visit ebay and simply buy a new one, likely from the same factory who made your big-name one. Why folks pay thousands of dollars for off-the-rack frames that cost only a couple hundred bucks to make in China continues to mystify me. The profit margins on these frames from manufacturer to end user is almost obscene in some cases. I don’t ever remember this situation during my bike shop retail days.

  11. Larry T: I think it depends on the model. There have been big margins to import cheap Taiwanese frames, see the Cycling IQ blog and the bit below the “Scenario – bicycle retailer turns legitimate brand creator” sub-heading.

    But other carbon frames are more complicated and rely on better engineering and design. Their cost is not so much in the manufacture but the design and paying for the capital in the factory. This isn’t new. Colnago could take a set of Columbus tubes into the factory for X lira… and out came a frameset to sell for 10X.

  12. Colnago at least he paid Italians reasonable wages to produce the product while your x vs 10x refers to a wholesale tubeset vs the retail price of the finished frame. My example was the retail price directly from Asia vs (quite likely) the same thing with a big bike marketers name on it for a much larger retail price. It’s not an apples to apples comparison. If we counted only the value of the raw carbon materials the markup numbers would be even more obscene. Sure, the big bike marketers often have there own molds and designs but the materials and labor come from exactly the same place. I’m no longer in the retail bike biz but still know a few importers and distributors, as I did in those days and believe the margins have increased by quite a lot over the 80’s and 90’s while the number of sizes available to the consumer (thus further increasing the margins with fewer SKU’s for the importer) have decreased. I have a difficult time understanding why folks pay so much for seemingly so little, but I confess I’m far from a marketing genius. I’ll leave it at that for fear of becoming like the BikeSnobNYC.

  13. I completely agree with Larry T. on this one. I don’t know how any rider justifies rolling around on these absurdly priced, $11,000 bicycles that are built for pennies on the dollar in the far-east. Sure, the big companies have some engineers to pay as well as the other costs associated with manufacturing and selling a product, but I am sure they get plenty of help from the composites company in the R&D/tooling/manufacturing department. When you can purchase a new car or motorcycle for the same price as a BICYCLE, someone is getting a very large piece of wool pulled over their eyes by a clever marketing department. But I am sure the fat coin you dropped on the latest carbon race-rig that just shipped from China with an Italian name will buy you all the “benefits” the latest-and-greatest is supposed to deliver…I’ll let you hang on my wheel as long as you don’t mind following an old guy on a level top-tube, lugged steel road bike that cost less, performs as good as, and is more environmentally conscious than most wheelsets.

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