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Local helmet recycling plan begins to take shape

Posted by on December 1st, 2011 at 2:43 pm

A box of helmets
awaits disassembly.
(Photo: Jason Jepsen)

Jason Jepsen is working on an exciting project. The 41-year old self-described “energy and efficiency expert” who just moved to Portland in 2009 after living “off the grid” in Colorado for the past 15 years is putting his personal energy into figuring out how to recycle the foam, plastic shell, fabric straps and plastic buckles that make up bike helmets.

It’s a considerable task, given that helmets are so widely used (about 77% of Portlanders use them according to 2010 PBOT bicycle counts), they only last a few years, and the industry doesn’t give much thought to making them easily recyclable.

“There’s so much support here in Portland, if we can do it anywhere we can do it here; and who knows, maybe affect a better product in the industry.”

A quick search on “helmet recycling” turns up the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s page on recycling which states on the first line: “Summary: We do not know of any recycling programs specifically for bicycle helmets.”

Jepsen wants to change all that. He wants to keep helmets out of landfills, re-use the materials they’re made of, and someday, perhaps persuade the big helmet companies to make more earth-friendly versions.

“Helmets have a limited life span, they’re almost like a disposable product… But people don’t like to think that big chunk is going into the ground,” said Jepsen via telephone yesterday.

Jason Jepsen
(Self portrait)

Jepsen’s interest in this topic began as a project for a Green Economics/Sustainability Development course he took at Portland State University. At the time he was also volunteering at the Community Cycling Center and got to know employee Gram Shipley (whom you might recall as this stylish fellow). Shipley told Jepsen about that the CCC wanted to do more helmet recycling, but it’s labor intensive, somewhat complicated, and with a lack of ongoing funding, the idea just fell by the wayside.

Legacy Emanuel Hospital (through their Trauma Nurses Talk Tough program) had been doing some helmet recycling, but they recently stopped the program. CCC Executive Director Alison Hill-Graves says they were collecting helmets and sending them over to Legacy, but now they’re not sure what to do with them.

That’s where Jepsen comes in. With his experience in the plastics industry and with a passion for recycling, he has jumped into this helmet project head first and is actively aligning partners and hammering out details of a local program.

Here’s how it might work: Bike shops will have a large container where customers can drop off old helmets (Jepsen says several major shops are already interested); when the containers fill up, shops can arrange for pick up or drop off to a storage facility; volunteers (the BTA has already shown interest in helping out) will then gather once or twice a year to disassemble the helmets and haul the materials off to the appropriate recycling facility.

“This needs to go upstream at some point. They’re made in a backwards way. You can make a better, more recyclable helmet without sacrificing anything.”

Even once the process is up and running (which is still a big if, given that Jepsen is volunteering and has no budget), the waste streams are “not ideal” for Jepsen. The plastic shells are shipped overseas and melted down into oil, the foam is melted down into a “sub-desirable foam product” and then shipped to China. The fabric and plastic buckles might be sent to a re-use store like the School and Community Re-use Action Project (SCRAP).

Not only are the waste streams questionable, the labor needed to prep the materials so that the local recyclers will accept them is intensive (all stickers, labors, glue and velcro must be removed from foam, for instance).

Jepsen’s larger goal is to change how helmets are made in the first place. “This needs to go upstream at some point. They’re made in a backwards way. You can make a better, more recyclable helmet without sacrificing anything.”

For example, Jepsen says, major helmet brands like Giro and Bell inject foam in their helmets with a plastic or nylon matrix that is impossible to separate out — and “those go straight to the garbage” he says. The plastic outer shell with the snazzy graphics that ends up being melted down into oil? Jepsen says he’d like to see those done away with altogether.

This project is still in its infancy, but if anyone can make it happen, Jepsen is the guy. “I don’t have an agenda, I just want to see what can happen with it… There’s so much support here in Portland, if we can do it anywhere we can do it here; and who knows, maybe affect a better product in the industry.”

We’ll have more from Jason as the program develops. He’ll certainly need more help from the community, so stay tuned for updates and opportunities to get involved. In the mean time, if you’d like to get involved with this effort or share a resource, drop us a line and we’ll forward you to the right place.

UPDATE, 8/27/12: I’m sorry to share that this program never fully materialized. I’ll update this story if it ever gets up and running.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Spiffy December 1, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    [blockquote]they only last a few years[/blockquote]
    unless you don’t get in an accident, then they last a very long time…

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    • Doug Smart December 1, 2011 at 3:30 pm

      In the Bicycle Education classes that the BTA runs, I believe they discard them after three years from the date of manufacture, based material degradation.

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    • David December 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm

      this actually isn’t the case. helmets have a certain life expectancy, after which the materials begin to degrade and render them less useful at preventing injury.

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      • matevz December 1, 2011 at 3:45 pm

        Can you (or anyone else) point us to where we can read more information about life expectancy? I’ve always heard this but I’ve never seen anything “official”, and I don’t recall my last helmet coming with a warning to discard it after a certain period (maybe I missed it).

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        • Alan 1.0 December 1, 2011 at 6:07 pm

          The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute offers a fairly balanced and reasonable piece which does not have a rigid replacement schedule and which disputes some of the claims about helmet decay:

          Snell Memorial Foundation (widely recognized for its helmet safety certifications) is more demanding, concluding “…the recommendation for five-year helmet replacement is a judgment call stemming from a prudent safety philosophy.”

          Most helmets have a date code on a sticker on the inside. Bike shops know the code, but asking them leaves you open to a sales pitch for a new helmet.

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      • 9watts December 2, 2011 at 8:04 am

        sure, but why? If someone wanted to make a helmet that didn’t degrade quickly they could. Remember the fellow we learned about here on bikeportland who made one out of corrugated cardboard that stood up to ANSI tests? Ha.
        I am so sick of (a) products that are made to be thrown out quickly–that we are berated not to keep even though they seem to the uninitiated to be still perfectly good–and (b) consumers who swallow that line as if this were some kind of god-given truth about safety products. This kind of safety-related obsolescence is 90% a way for manufacturers to inflate the size of their markets and 10% materials science.

        I wore my Bell V-1 Pro from 1987 to 2008. It had a hard shell which as others have noted provides all sorts of useful protection for both the helmet and the wearer, not to mention providing a rigid surface to attach a rearview mirror to. That’s the thing I miss most. When will we get helmets made by people who commute by bike?!

        Having said all that if helmets are being landfilled by the hundreds of thousands then this is a worthy effort on its own terms. Thanks for highlighting this project, Jonathan.

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        • wsbob December 2, 2011 at 12:44 pm

          I still have my Bell V-1 Pro. I don’t use it, partly because the buckle closure broke but also because it’s old, and the fit of the later model Bell Solar I have is much better, plus, it’s lighter. The Bell V-1 Pro is still kind of nice looking helmet though. Within the 2-3 weeks, someone had one for sale with original box, on craigslist. Vintage enthusiasts seem to be interested in the old style.

          The relative complexities of recycling or reusing the foam in bike helmets is one of the most objectionable things about bike helmets or any plastic products for that matter. Regardless of what manufacturers, engineers, and science people say, I’m doubtful that plastic products ever really can break down into something that can once again be a part of the natural ecosystem, like say…wood or plants into soil or rocks. At least, not at a rate that could in any way keep up with the rate that plastic is produced.

          Just checking information on the wikipedia page for ‘biodegradation’ is discouraging. Maybe it’s time to give up fleece and foam and go back to wool and other natural fibers, but how could a more biodegradeble helmet be made of those materials? I was hoping to hear more about the cardboard helmet idea, because it seemed to have potential, even though it too to some degree, employed the use of resins or some such thing to avert degradation.

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  • Norman December 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Sounds like a worthy endeavor. Next time I shop for a helmet I’ll ask about recyclability. Some how I never thought about it before.

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  • fredlf December 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    When I worked in shops, most vendors recommended replacement every 3-5 years. I think the major issue is UV degradation of the foam which, sadly, is less of an issue for us in Portland than in, say, L.A. So unless I wreck (who me?), I keep mine about 4-5 years before replacement.

    I would be thrilled if I could recycle the old ones I have kicking around.

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    • A.K. December 1, 2011 at 4:51 pm

      UV can still be an issue despite the cloud cover. For example, transition lenses still work when outdoors, even under the clouds, because they are UV-sensitive.

      Skin cancer can also be a big issue up here, again despite the clouds.

      Though I guess your helmet is safe if you commute in the dark all winter long and are never outside during actual daylight hours! 😉

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  • Matt M December 1, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    This sounds very much like the shoe recycling program that Nike had in place in a number of stores throughout Portland and the Willamette Valley. Unfortunately that program has become unavailable to a number of retailers since they moved their processing facility out of State.

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  • Jerko December 1, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Sweat also breaks down the foam. like any piece of safety equipment it is a good idea to replace every few years.

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  • Matt D December 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    This is a good idea. Somewhat-related: it’s always bugged me that thrift stores sell donated, potentially-unsafe helmets.

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  • dwainedibbly December 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I have no doubt that the materials break down over time, but I have to wonder just a little if the “replace every X years” advice isn’t driven in part by an effort to sell more helmets.

    Eliminate the plastic outer shell entirely? Won’t that result in helmets that last for even less time due to wear & tear, or that do a worse job protecting the wearer? When my head skips along the ground or off a windshield, I want the foam to be there to compress, not tear apart in big chunks.

    I think this is an excellent project and I hope to see manufacturers start to take recycling into consideration when designing their products. Perhaps some of the smaller makers will jump on this first.

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    • Tom M December 2, 2011 at 2:05 am

      Doing away with the plastic shell is exactly how Giro helmets started. In their case it was to make the lightest helmet on the market at the time. It says everything that they don’t sell that helmet anymore doesn’t it?

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  • April December 1, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    I was told that the plastic shell existed so the helmet was slippery. If you wear just a styrofoam helmet with no shell, and your head does hit the ground at an angle with any kind of speed, since it doesn’t slide you’re more likely to break your neck.

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    • Schrauf December 1, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      Very true, and one of the downfalls of helmet use. Helmets with aerodynamic shapes also cause more injuries due to neck twisting, relative to helmets with a rounder shape.

      Not to say helmets, on average, do not increase safety. There are just a lot of variables. Sometimes they actually cause injuries.

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  • Racer X December 1, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    This looks like a new problem with a more traditional solution – “reduce their use” vs. “recycling”. 😉

    …Avoid the dependence on helmets for cities and urban areas with great bikeway facilities.

    Rural and suburban riders will still be dependent on helmets due to high speed traffic and poor roadway facilities, so these would be the market for recycling.

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    • Schrauf December 1, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      Dang it, someone beat me to “reduce, reuse, recycle” – with the emphasis always first on “reduce”.

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  • Joe Rowe December 1, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    We need a take back law for helmets and every bit of stuff we buy at any store. If a bike shop can sell it they have the duty to take it back. Helmets that land in a dump will will not hurt our water table as much as obsolete electronics.

    Nice work Jason! This sheds light on a bigger problem.

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    • wsbob December 2, 2011 at 12:38 am

      Joe Rowe
      We need a take back law for helmets and every bit of stuff we buy at any store. If a bike shop can sell it they have the duty to take it back. Helmets that land in a dump will will not hurt our water table as much as obsolete electronics.
      Nice work Jason! This sheds light on a bigger problem.
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      Being the source of the product, and the operation that makes the money from producing them, maybe it’s more appropriately the manufacturer that should be responsible for taking back and recycling their plastic products.

      Same with manufacturers of at least some container goods that could be offered in glass or other material that’s more recyclable than plastic, but are offered in plastic because doing so allows the shelf price to be lower.

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    • sorebore December 3, 2011 at 7:39 pm

      Does this mean New Seasons is obligated to take back my groceries after I am done digesting them?

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  • Nate December 1, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    No source for this, but my material science professor in college recommended replacing helmets every few years. His rationale was that every time you drop the helmet or it gets banged around in around in an equipment bag, microfactures form and spread in the foam (which has a cellular like structure). This weakens the helmet because you want the fracture growth to happen when you get in a crash to absorb the energy from impact, not beforehand.

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  • Haul it Louisville Guy December 2, 2011 at 7:45 am

    It never even crossed my mind to recycle bike helmets. Thanks for bringing this into the open.

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  • craig December 2, 2011 at 10:13 am

    The BHSI site also describes some re-use options, including breaking down the foam for parcel packing (instead of foam peanuts), or into small bits as soil amendment.

    E-how also has similar info:

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  • Albert December 2, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    A couple years ago I picked up a new-in-box Bell Biker helmet from 1978 that I occasionally wear to go retro. The polystyrene liner and lexan shell don’t visually appear to have deteriorated at all. Interestingly, the Snell Foundation once ran an impact test on a 10-year-old, heavily-used Bell Biker and found it performed as well as a newly manufactured helmet:

    A few months ago Nashbar concluded a long-term sale on Bell Metropolis helmets manufactured in 2004. Some consider this the ultimate commuter helmet due to the custom rain and cold accessories, and because they were so cheap, I read some reviews by people buying extras to store for future use. So when that Metro helmet comes out of the closet it will technically be “new” but really 10 years or more old.

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  • bikesalot December 2, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    My Bell Metro helmet lives under a permanently attached rain cover accessory as my rain helmet. As that cover is black, it is also covered with a fine mesh hi-viz yellow cover. Looks kind of dorky, but you can see it and the UV does not get much of a shot at the helmet.

    I always wear a cloth headsweat under the helmet, which keeps it much cleaner. I expect this helmet to last me quite a few years, even with being worn pretty much all winter.

    Speaking of Bell, their yellow Citi helmet (and the Metro too, I believe) have the worst color fading I have ever seen. The yellow bleaches out pretty much to white in just a year or two. Could this be another mechanism for prompting you to replace the helmet?

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  • Albert December 3, 2011 at 3:23 am

    That Bell Metro Rain Shield is the best-fitting one I’ve ever seen, but that also makes it a bit difficult to snap on the helmet. My solution was similar to yours – buy two of the clearance Metros and leave the rain shield permanently attached to one of them.

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  • Domes December 3, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Do you have a guide that allows shop employees to quickly identify helmets that can be collected for your project? It sounds like a lot of the helmets out there are ineligible for this process.

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  • Elaine December 20, 2011 at 11:15 am

    I remember seeing this helmet design (Waxed cardboard with a plastic shell) last year, I don’t know if he was ever able to make a go of it. Seems that something like that ought to be more recyclable.

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  • jj August 25, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Any updates on this program? Did he ever get it up and running? I’m cleaning out the garage and just found a box full of old helmets in need of recycling if possible!

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  • Glenn February 21, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    Even without UV degradation nylon loses half it’s strength in 5 years. I don’t know how this relates to the plastics and foams used in bike helmets though. I wonder how an old style military helmet liner (looks like a plastic army helmet) with webbing support would work…

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  • Stephen April 27, 2016 at 10:44 am

    We left an old cycle helmet hanging in our bike shelter and some robins came and nested in it!

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