You ride a bike because you want to do your bit for the environment, right? You’re aware of your carbon footprint, and although what secretly pushes you onward is the thrill of the thin layer of rubber between you and utter destruction, you’re smugly satisfied at the fact that you’re also doing good. But your green justification might not be the sure thing you think it is.
Do you know where your frame was manufactured? How far it travelled to the bike shop where you picked it up? How about that snazzy little CO2 canister you like to use when you have a puncture? And how, exactly, do you get to that fun bike trail where you like to spend your Saturday afternoons?
That eco-happy little daydream of yours could be as full of holes as a fine piece of Emmental.
But before you tearfully lift that carbon frame back onto its pegs and break out the gas-guzzler, let’s break it down and have a look at the worst case scenario. The situation might not be as dire as you think.
First question: do you ride an e-bike?
If you do then yes, you’re technically leaving a smaller carbon footprint than, say, a Mack Truck, but please don’t tell me you do it to be green. First thing you’re looking at is a Lithium-ion battery, most likely 36v. I’ll spare you the technobabble about how exactly the battery works — what you need to know is that not only does it have a carbon footprint all its own, manufacturing it calls for nasties like cobalt and nickel compounds. Bad for the environment and the poor schmuck who’s putting it together.
There’s also the tiny detail of needing to be recharged with electricity manufactured, depending on where you live, from good ol’ fossil fuel. You bought your e-bike to be eco-friendly you said? Go back and read what we said about the thrill of the ride.
So your bike has an aluminium frame?
Better, but still not awesome sauce. You’re on the right track with aluminium; it’s light and it’s strong, exactly what you want in a bike frame. Right? Well yes, but it’s also excavated by means of open-pit mining and takes a phenomenal amount of energy to process it into a usable form.
But aluminium is lighter, you cry, and lighter is better. I don’t like to contradict you, but aluminium isn’t much lighter than good steel. The main difference is that aluminium tubes are thicker than steel tubes — not any great benefit to you, but easier to manipulate for those computer-controlled robots in the mass-production factory we told you about.
And yes, aluminium can and should be recycled pretty much anywhere. Unfortunately for your eco-dreams, though, for structural reasons the recycled stuff can’t be used for your bike frame. So it’s back to that open pit mining.
The biggest drawback with your aluminium framed bike is fatigue. No, not yours even if it is lighter than the Brawny Beast of your childhood. An aluminium frame is good for 5 or 10 years’ use if you’re lucky. Which wouldn’t be so bad if you had the option to repair, but the aluminium framed bike’s initial low cost is balanced by the fact that it just isn’t cost effective to repair. Which means starting the manufacture cycle all over again.
Well how about carbon fibre then? Or titanium?
Okay, if we’re talking cool factor then you’re winning already. Light, reassuringly expensive and ridden by all the top names, you have to be on the right track in the green stakes, correct?
Well, not necessarily. Let’s look at titanium first. We have to agree that your titanium frame won’t rust or corrode and, treated right, will last a lifetime. On the other hand, though, titanium is difficult to extract and notoriously difficult to weld. We’re talking mucho wastage, people.
But then there’s carbon-fibre, the pro’s darling. It’s light, strong, and it’ll make your biking friends drool with envy. But apart from its tendency to fail catastrophically at the worst possible moment, the emissions it releases when it’s being manufactured would make that Lithium-ion battery proud. Add the fact that the totalled frame can’t be recycled once you’ve crashed it and the only green is the envy on your bike-friend’s face.
Ah, steel is the way to go then, you cry
Let’s crack out Grandma’s old, black monstrosity and hit the trails.
And you’d be right, in part at least (but not about Grandma’s old, black monstrosity, okay?). First thing, steel releases only a third of the CO2 emissions of aluminium in the production process and is 100% recyclable. Grandma’s winning already!
Second thing is that it lasts forever. No to be clichéd, but if you take care of your steel frame then she’ll take care of you for pretty much as long as you need her to. When your hipster, carbon-riding neighbour is on his third frame you’ll still be riding high on your old faithful. She might even end up on a peg beside Grandma’s one day. And, even better, when you misjudge a turn and take an inch of skin off your hide you can repair it cheaply and safely to good as new.
Third and more important, if you’re buying a steel-framed bike today then most likely it’s a custom job.
Which means that it’s measured a hundred ways from Friday to fit you perfectly. And that means that it’s comfortable. Don’t underestimate comfort, my friend; it isn’t something that’s only relevant to old-lady shoes that Grandma traded up to. When your bike’s comfortable you ride it. And riding your bike every day instead of just for a couple of hours at that bike trail is the greenest way forward that there is.
So what does that leave, exactly?
We’ve just ruled out every material known to bike-manufacturers. Are we back to walking?
Not quite. What we’ve done is point out that even though biking itself is the eco-warrior’s darling du jour, the equipment you use doesn’t come guilt-free. But don’t panic yet, there are solutions.
For example, how about buying second hand? There are all sorts of options available to you, and so long as you check your prospects out properly you can be on to a winner. Could you possibly be any greener?
How about a wooden bike?
Yes, there is such a thing. Yes, they really are a viable option. And yes, they look good.
Surprisingly, wood isn’t just used in frame manufacture to make the eco-friends happy. Wood has outstanding shock and vibration damping properties, is tough, more durable than metal and less likely to fail half-way down a mountain than carbon. And it’s sustainable.
In fact, if you opt for bamboo, not only might you have a negative carbon footprint but you could actually build the thing yourself. How’s that for green? All you need to do now is figure how to get your titanium-riding friends to stop laughing for long enough to hear all about it.
Using your bike
So you’ve chosen your bike, gritted your teeth against the environmental impact of manufacturing it (admit it, you aren’t riding a bamboo bike are you?), and you’re ready to offset your environmental impact by using it every day. So you’re in the clear, right?
- First question: tell me about punctures. Those nifty little CO2 inflators are a lifesaver, taking all the work out of pumping like a maniac half-way up a mountain. However, even though the manufacturers will try to ease your conscience by telling you that the cartridges are made from entirely recycled material, but that really isn’t the point, is it? Releasing that CO2 into the environment just because you’d prefer not to pump is not an environmentally friendly decision, now is it?
- Second question: how exactly did you get to that bike trail? Did you drive your fossil-fuel using dinosaur, with the bike attached outside to decrease aerodynamics and, therefore, fuel efficiency? Did you really? To be eco-friendly you use your bike to get around, not just to have fun when you get there. Enough said.
- Third question: what are you wearing? No, we’re not digressing, it’s a legitimate question. Do you know the carbon footprint of that rainproof jacket you’re wearing? Or your shoes? And, tell me, how often do you wash your clothes? There’s a lot more to think about than you’d expect.
- And finally: where are you riding? Do you tear through meadows of rare wildflowers like a hooligan, leaving destruction in your wake? Do you take corners too tightly, skidding and damaging the track? You do? Shame on you! Choosing a low-impact bike and a zero-footprint jacket doesn’t excuse you from responsible biking. That isn’t even eco-friendly biking, that’s just basic guidelines for not being a douche. But you know that, right?
Disposal of your bike
We don’t like to think about it, but your bike has a finite lifespan that will, with luck, be quite a bit shorter than your own. Over her lifetime she’ll give you wholehearted and unstinting service; the least you can do is to provide her with appropriate end-of-life care.
If you cast your mind back to our conversation about the various materials used in manufacture, you’ll remember that steel, and aluminium can be easily recycled almost anywhere. Your faithful machine can look forward to a fruitful second life as a gas-guzzler or even aeroplanes. Does the means justify the ends? Only you can decide.
If your pride and joy is made from titanium then you’re in luck – it’s a little more valuable as a recycling material than steel or aluminium. Not that lucky, though; you’ll still be a long way from recouping your initial investment. But let’s be honest with each other here, you didn’t buy your titanium frame for its resale value, now did you?
Carbon-fibre can’t be recycled in the traditional sense and it doesn’t biodegrade, which makes it anything but green. The industry is trying hard to pretend that it can with promises to re-purpose old frames into ancillary items like brake housings, but we’re all friends here and can take the truth. My suggestion is that you honour the spirit rather than the body of the bike and set it free.
The most eco-friendly thing you can do with an old bike is to pass it on. To your son, your brother, the guy you work with who’s just starting out, even for a small consideration in your local bike shop. Give somebody else the chance to love her like you did.
So now you know
Bike riding is as eco-friendly as you make it. If you’re on your third aluminium frame this year and the other two are dumped at the edge of that mountain meadow you like to drive to, then all you’re doing is tipping your hat to eco-responsibility without doing any of the work. Not cool. If you ever get confused, you can take advice from bike rental places.
The zero carbon footprint shoes are nice, the bamboo bike is nice (honestly!) and that carbon-frame sculpture is nice (no, honestly!), but what really counts is using your bike every day. After all, you’ve worked back its initial carbon footprint after about the first 400 miles.