Author: Chris O’Donovan
Typically, the environmental impact of a product is directly linked to the energy consumed in its production. As we consume more, our energy footprint increases and so does our impact on the environment. There are, of course, nuances determining the impact of something on the environment as a multitude of factors come into play. A standard methodology known as Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA for short, was developed as a framework to measure and compare the environmental impact of products, services and processes over their life cycles.
As such LCA is a powerful analytical tool used by scientists and engineers to tally up the resources consumed by products through their respective life cycles. That life cycle usually starts with manufacturing and ends at disposal, in a cradle-to-grave type analysis. One should note that the grave is usually a landfill. Through LCA something known as the ‘Waste Hierarchy’ was established.
The Waste Hierarchy states that once something has been manufactured, it is best to first re-use that product before recycling it and it is better to recycle it before disposing of it. This doesn’t really come as a surprise. It seems we all inherently know that it is better to use something for as long as possible before we either recycle or throw it away. This rings especially true when disposal means landfilling and that landfill is run by an underfunded municipal department.
In simple terms, we understand that the longer a product can be in service for, the lower that product’s environmental impact will be. Certain factors may come into play when assessing a product’s footprint, such as services and maintenance. Generally, servicing and maintaining bicycles is not too resource intense. For the most part, old bearings, oils and fluids replaced regularly can be recycled. While certain items such as O-rings and bushings may be harder to recycle, they make up a relatively small proportion of the waste. Certain components, such as tyres are unfortunately not easily recycled. We do need to consider, though, that buying a brand-new bicycle would also mean buying a set of new components. In this regard, there is something is quite humble about the bicycle compared to other machines. The input required to keep bicycles running over time is minimal compared to the initial resource investment, provided a good maintenance schedule is followed.
There is, however, a dirty side to cycling too. As the sport has progressed, bicycles have become highly engineered machines. Designs have grown in complexity and the use of niche alloys and complex composites have resulted in lower bicycle recyclability. With today’s technology and economic drivers bicycle frames are essentially non-recyclable on a mass scale. This means that at present many of our bicycle frames and components will meet their fate in a landfill grave.
A positive aspect of the high level of engineering of many bicycles is that it promotes re-use. A regularly serviced and maintained bicycle will delay the eventual disposal date of the machine and reduce the environmental harm caused by the initial manufacture. By purchasing a pre-owned bike you are buying into the re-use economy. You are not only helping your budget go further, but you are also helping the environment by choosing to buy a product and extend its useful life.