Bicycles Are Not so Green Anymore

I just got an email from my brother asking about types of carbon fiber material made with more natural materials, which prompted his observation that bicycles are becoming less and less environmentally friendly due to the materials that now dominate their construction. He’s exactly right.

Bicycles are becoming less and less green. The exotic materials being used in them — titanium, carbon fiber, aluminum alloys — are environmentally suspect on a number of counts:

  • Extraction and raw material processing: Virgin aluminum is terribly destructive to extract and process, though once extracted can be recycled almost endlessly, assuming you can turn your old bike frame and components in for recycling, which doesn’t really happen. Carbon fiber is chemically and electrically intensive to produce. Titanium is an even worse offender. I love this old article by Gary Helfich and Scot Nichol about how titanium gets turned into pricey bike parts. As they say at the end, “this is a nasty process that involves lots of chemicals and carbon monoxide being released into the atmosphere. After you buy your Titanium frame, doo dad or thingamajig, you better park your car for a week and ride your bike everywhere to get your green karma back in balance.”
  • Durability: Aluminum and carbon fiber are both more fragile than steel, in the sense that once damaged they cannot be repaired. A bent steel part can just be bent back, but aluminum loses its strength went bent back into shape. Carbon fiber tends to fail catastrophically (a small crack turns into a large one with almost no warning). So parts get tossed instead of repaired. This is made worse by the non-stop push for light weight.
  • Recyclability: Steel is easily recycled, as is aluminum. Titanium not so much. And composite materials like carbon fiber and kevlar are pretty-much dead-ends in terms of recycling due to their inter-mingling of materials, and do not de-compose unlike metals. They are in the landfill forever.

As troubling this trend is, a bike is still miles better than a car…