Posts Tagged ‘EPS’

By Liza Coviello

Liza Coviello is an art administrator and ceramic artist who lives in Philadelphia, PA.  She loves biking, among other outdoor activities, and is always looking to “green up” her lifestyle.

I love my bike helmet.  It is the second one of the exact same make/model that I have owned.  The first may actually have saved my life, but definitely saved me from head trauma and I can’t thank it enough for this.  My only issue, and it is unfortunately a very big one, is my helmet’s environmental impact and its lack of sustainability.  Biking itself is an extremely sustainable method of transportation.  Its only requirement for energy is man-power, and its further popularity will be a benefit to the environment by reducing the amount of cars on the road.  For example, reports have shown that air pollution from cars causes 300,000 extra cases of bronchitis in children, 15,000 hospital admissions for heart disease, and 162,000 asthma attacks in children – all in one year.  Plus, we must take into account the fact that car traffic causes noise pollution, requires much more space for driving and parking, and requires the production of vehicles (another environmentally damaging industry), roads, parking lots and garages, and a laundry list of materials and activities to maintain them.  So, the question that has been plaguing me lately is whether the pollution created by the production and existence of this helmet outweighs the positive effects of using the helmet while riding my bike.

Let’s review what I know:  I’ll start by describing the various materials used in the production – First, polycarbonate, the material used for the exterior shell and all fastening agents, is the least polluting and harmful of the materials, so I feel that it is a good place to start.  Technically, this plastic can be recycled – at which time, during combustion, toxic chemicals are not released.  For recycling, however, the major issue with this plastic and indeed, one that you will find with the other helmet materials, is that it is produced in a number of ‘types’.  The recycling number system that you can find on the bottom of plastic containers was developed in 1988 by the Society of Plastics Industry.  According to their website, “Plastic is not any one material. Rather, it is a family of related materials with varying properties… The success of a product often is dependent on matching the right plastic – with the right properties… The same is true when the material in question is a recycled plastic. The more uniform the post-use plastics going in, the more predictable the properties of the recycled plastic coming out. Coding enables individuals to perform quality control (i.e., sorting) before recycling, ensuring that the recycled plastic is as homogenous as possible to meet the needs of the end markets.”  Essentially, those numbers that you see on the bottom of your plastic food container and are surrounded by the recycling logo specify what type of plastic it is and with a little research, can help you to find a place to recycle it.

Even after we address the issue of whether or not this polycarbonate shell CAN be recycled, we are left with the problem of its extraction from the other materials.   Unfortunately, removing the shell from the foam core is a laborious task and often, not possible by the user.  If the wearer is able to separate the parts, the shell could be recycled.  This is great news!  Now, if only I was unable to locate any centers or helmet vendors who were able to accept old helmets in order to dismantle and recycle them for me!  I found only one location in the country (in Boulder, Colorado) which may be able to take helmets and dismantle them for recycling – the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials.

Let’s continue.  The core of the Slant is made from EPS – expanded polystyrene.  This material is non-biodegradable and is made from a non-renewable, non-sustaining, and quickly disappearing commodity, namely petroleum.  Although it can be recycled, the rate at which it is currently being recycled in the United States is less than 10%.  Since it is such a versatile and cheap material, its uses are many and it is therefore highly present in our landfills.  Polystyrene comes in a several different varieties.   The foam used in this helmet is different from Styrofoam food containers, only in how it is created. Other polystyrene types include extruded polystyrene (the type of plastic used for CD jewel cases) and Styrofoam™, trademarked by the Dow Chemical Company.

In addition to the negatives that I have already elicited, polystyrene, when heated, can leach styrene into surrounding materials.  Stryene is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin.  It is for this very reason that people are warned never to microwave foam food containers.  “Styrene has been listed by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) since 1987 as “http://www.inchem.org/documents/iarc/vol82/82-07.html” group 2B, “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” IARC reaffirmed that decision in further reviews in 1994 and 2002.”  Although it is unlikely that a user would ever put food in their helmet, heat it up, and eat out of it, I feel it important to point out the potential dangers from the materials it is made from, regardless of the likelihood of their causing problems.

The last major material that makes up this helmet is nylon.  Nylon is used for the interior padding, as well as the straps which hold the helmet to wearer’s head.  The manufacture of nylon creates nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas that is 310 times as potent as carbon dioxide.  The creation of this material contributes heavily to global warming, making it one of the most environmentally damaging textiles to manufacture.  Because of its superior durability, it was an obvious choice for items such as seatbelts, leashes, harnesses, and of course, straps to secure a bicycle helmet.

Although nylon can be recycled, recent estimates say that less than one percent of all nylon actually gets recycled.  Since it is a thermoplastic, it is relatively easy to be melted down into pellets and then reprocessed.  Much of the reason that it is not recycled, however, is due to the fact that nylon is produced into such a large variety of fibers and fabrics.  Unfortunately, not all nylon materials can be recycled together and must be separated out by their type.  A good example is the fact that the padding and straps on the Bell Slant are not of the same nylon type and could therefore, not be recycled together.  This is not the only problem for nylon recycling, though.  Often, a type of nylon is locked into a combination material that is produced in mass quantities.  Carpet is the best example of how this occurs.  Most carpet is made from a blend of nylon and other materials.  According to an article I found, each year in the United States, carpets containing about 500,000 metric tons of nylon end up at the dump.  Scientists are currently trying to find a way to “unlock” the nylon in order to recycle it.  In this research I also found that there are companies that do recycle the material, but will not accept all types of it. There are, however, places where you can post listings to buy and sell nylon scrap by their type to be reused and recycled.

It is important to keep in mind that helmets cannot be “reused”.  Their ability to perform in the event of a crash is voided after only one impact.  It is for this reason that riders are instructed to discard their helmets if it has been involved in any type of impact.  The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute states, “The foam part of a helmet is made for one-time use, and after crushing once it is no longer as protective as it was, even if it still looks intact.”  Often, helmet-selling companies are willing to check the foam core on a helmet, in order to ensure that there are no cracks and it is still viable.  Sadly, a single crack in the core can make it possible to fly off on impact.

Due to the fact that there are so many barriers to the recyclability and reusability of a bicycle helmet, many riders have found creative ways to deal with these discarded items.  I came across several internet forums seeking suggestions on alternate uses for an old bike helmet. Recycle This, a blog that is dedicated to finding alternate uses for items which cannot be recycled, allows users to post queries and seek suggestions.  Often the suggestions tend towards attempting to remove the foam and then recycle it, or use it for packaging material.  Other posts suggest that the owner use the helmet as a planter, or container of some type.  Although I feel it a very positive thing that riders are concerned enough about the sustainability issues of a bicycle helmet to seek solutions on the internet, I found little to suggest that much effort is being made to try and reduce the number of these items being produced and discarded, without the possibility of reusing or recycling them.

I am happy to report that there are some efforts being made to create more eco-friendly helmet options.  These options are still very few and from what I have found, not very easy to obtain.  The first helmet that I encountered was one made from all natural materials, the exterior of which is bamboo.  This helmet, produced by a French company named Roof, is a very limited edition and very expensive (roughly $350).  Other points to mention: this helmet is only available in Europe and is designed to be a motorcycle helmet, so it does not have the type of ventilation associated with a bicycle helmet.

In addition, a concept helmet has been designed by Lacoste® which is comprised of sustainable materials.  The exterior of this helmet is covered in organic wool, the shell is a thermoformed bio-plastic, and the core is a low-density cork and soy-based foam. The cork core is capable of absorbing the same amount of energy as the polystyrene used in traditional helmets.  Soy-based foam’s popularity has been increasing in the furniture industry over the past few years.  Companies such as Martha Stewart Living and Ford Motor Company have been using this foam in an effort to get away from the petro-chemical polystyrene foam to something that is a renewable resource.  As for the bioplastic used for the shell, it is derived from renewable sources such as vegetable oil.  Bioplastics also create less greenhouse gases than regular plastics and create significantly less hazardous waste during production.

An industrial designer has also taken on the challenge of finding a more eco-friendly helmet option by designing a recyclable helmet made from polypropylene.  This helmet is not yet in production for sales, but the sheer fact that it has been designed should help to jumpstart research and design in this arena. Julian Bergignat’s intention was create something lightweight, low-cost and recyclable. His helmet design, Tattoo, is extremely unique, but has yet to be tested for safety and impact resistance.  My own personal opinion of the helmet is that it does not look like it is capable of protecting a rider in an accident, but I will wait for the testing to pass judgment.

While searching for eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional bike helmet, I have stumbled onto some unique concepts, but none more unique than a helmet which is designed to recharge batteries.  A proposal for the Wind Helmet was drawn up by a Malaysian designer, Wai Hoong Leng.  All of this helmet’s materials would still fall within the realm of non-sustainable resources, but the upside is that you would be able to use man-power to charge your various electrical items like cell phones and mp3 players, instead of plugging them in or using disposable batteries.  This concept is definitely a far shot from what I was looking for in terms of a helmet whose production was less damaging to the environment, but I thought it important to elicit other designs which are seeking to make themselves more worthy of the damage they are causing.

Most recently, I have found a very elegant design for a helmet that was based on an old French army helmet. French designer Kévin Goupil used cork, a sustainable material, for the exterior and for the impact-bearing property of the helmet.  Since this is such a new design, I was unable to glean more information about the remainder of its properties or whether it is intended for bicycle riders, but based on pictures, it appears to have the typical nylon straps and little to no ventilation.

Armed with all of this information, what does an avid cyclist do?  I honestly haven’t been able to answer this question for myself yet.  As any good recycler and semi-environmentalist would, I worry about purchasing another helmet thereby encouraging this harmful production and waste cycle.  On the other hand, I know it to be an ignorant thing to go without a helmet, or to ride with something that will offer me less protection.  And since I just noticed the first crack in my foam liner, I will soon be making a decision whether to buy another or keep searching in hopes of a much more green solution.  For now, though, I am in helmet limbo.


See Biking Helps Environment, Health,  HYPERLINK “http://dukechronicle.com/article/biking-helps-environment-health” http://dukechronicle.com/article/biking-helps-environment-health.

See European Polycarbonate Sheet Extruders,  HYPERLINK “http://www.epse.org/faq8″ http://www.epse.org/faq8 , Questions for Professionsal, What is the environmental impact of polycarbonate?

See SPI – About Plastics – SPI Resin Identification Code,  HYPERLINK “http://www.plasticsindustry.org/AboutPlastics/content.cfm?ItemNumber=823&navItemNumber=1125” http://www.plasticsindustry.org/AboutPlastics/content.cfm?ItemNumber=823&navItemNumber=1125.

See the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials,  HYPERLINK “http://www.ecocycle.org/charm/index.cfm” www.ecocycle.org/charm/index.cfm.

See Assessing the Impact of Expanded Polystyrene on the Environment. Converanet.  HYPERLINK “http://www.converanet.com/chemicals-plastics-rubber/assessing-impact-expanded-polystyrene-environment” http://www.converanet.com/chemicals-plastics-rubber/assessing-impact-expanded-polystyrene-environment.

See Polystyrene,  HYPERLINK “http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/polystyrene” www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/polystyrene.

See Polystyrene Fast Facts,  HYPERLINK “http://www.way-to-go.org/doc/PolystyreneFactSheets.pdf” http://www.way-to-go.org/doc/PolystyreneFactSheets.pdf.

See The Facts About Styrene, Cancer and Bike Helmets,  HYPERLINK “http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/07/the-facts-about-styrene-cancer-bike-helmets.php?dcitc=th_rss_science” http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/07/the-facts-about-styrene-cancer-bike-helmets.php?dcitc=th_rss_science.

See Polystyrene Fast Facts,  HYPERLINK “http://www.way-to-go.org/doc/PolystyreneFactSheets.pdf” http://www.way-to-go.org/doc/PolystyreneFactSheets.pdf.

See Polymer Breakdown: reaction offers possible way to breakdown nylon,  HYPERLINK “http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_1_172/ai_n19377481/” http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_1_172/ai_n19377481/.

See  HYPERLINK “http://www.recycle.net/Plastic/nylon/index.html” http://www.recycle.net/Plastic/nylon/index.html for a list of various nylons accepted at various recycling marketplaces.

See BHSI, When to Replace My Helmet,  HYPERLINK “http://www.bhsi.org” www.bhsi.org.

See BHSI, When to Replace My Helmet,  HYPERLINK “http://www.bhsi.org” www.bhsi.org.

See Recycle This,  HYPERLINK “http://www.recyclethis.co.uk/about” http://www.recyclethis.co.uk/about.

See Turn A Helmet Into A Planter,  HYPERLINK “http://planetgreen.discovery.com/home-garden/cool-reuses-bicycle-helmet.html” http://planetgreen.discovery.com/home-garden/cool-reuses-bicycle-helmet.html.

See  HYPERLINK “http://www.roof.fr/products/product.php?id=5” http://www.roof.fr/products/product.php?id=5, Roof, Au dela de l’appearance.

Lacoste helmet – See  HYPERLINK “http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/07/lacoste-helmet.php” http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/07/lacoste-helmet.php.

See  HYPERLINK “http://www.sustainableisgood.com/blog/2007/07/ford-using-new-.html” http://www.sustainableisgood.com/blog/2007/07/ford-using-new-.html, From Sustainable is Good, article on soy-based foam. .

See  HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioplastic” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioplastic.

See  HYPERLINK “http://definitivetouch.com/news/julien-bergignat-tattoo-bicycle-helmet/” http://definitivetouch.com/news/julien-bergignat-tattoo-bicycle-helmet/ from Definitive Touch, regarding Julien Bergignat’s Tattoo bicycle helmet.

See  HYPERLINK “http://www.dsgnwrld.com/wind-helmet-by-wai-hoong-leng-693/” http://www.dsgnwrld.com/wind-helmet-by-wai-hoong-leng-693/, from DSGN WRLD, regarding Wai Hoong Leng’s “Wind Helmet”.

See  HYPERLINK “http://www.stilsucht.de/07/2010/cork-to-be-alive/” http://www.stilsucht.de/07/2010/cork-to-be-alive/  from STILLSUCHT regarding Kevin Goupil’s concept cork helmet.

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