Bicycle Production and Usage Waste

The positive and negative environmental effects of bikes


Bicycles are so much better for the environment than cars, buses, planes and pretty much any other form of transport. They use fewer materials to produce, emit no CO2, and do not require as much maintenance. Whilst all of this is not detrimental to the environment, there are some downsides that many people may not be aware of, in terms of waste in bicycle production. This report explores the positive and negative effects of bicycle production and usage on the environment.

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Compared to cars, bicycles cost little to produce, cost nothing to run, and they do not emit toxic fumes. The number of bicycles in the world is 1.3 billion, outweighing cars 3:1. In Australia alone there are over 3.6 million people that ride a bicycle each week, as stated by the Australian Cycle Party in 2013. To fully understand the environmental effects of bicycles, the report will examine bicycle production waste, the environmental impact of production, a comparison of bicycle and car usage and the overall lifetime of a bicycle.

Bicycle Production Waste

Different types of bikes have different levels of production waste. The three kinds of resources used to make bikes are water, energy and solid materials. Research was undertaken in an American study in 2014 comparing two bicycles made by the company Specialized. The data was analysed and compiled by three postgraduate students from Duke University, and the full report can be viewed here.

A carbon fibre frame (Roubaix) uses 65,000 litres of water, 470 kWh and 1 kg of wasted material to make - enough water to fill 520 olympic pools a year. Based on the World Health Organization’ minimum water needs, Specialized uses enough water while making Roubaix frames to supply water needed for over 470,000 people per year. The Roubaix carbon fibre Fork uses 31,000 litres of water, 200 kWh of energy and 0.39 kg of materials - enough solid waste to produce 9.5 smart cars per year.

In comparison, an aluminium bike (Allez) uses 1,700 litres of water, 2,400 kWh of energy and 0.06 kg of solid waste - enough electricity to power New York for 120 hours. The Allez fork requires 36,000 litres of water, 230 kWh and produces 0.41 kg of waste - enough water for 300,000 people per year.

So when we add up the parts for the carbon fibre bike, the total usage is almost 100,000 litres of water, 1,100 kWh, and 3kg of solid waste, and this is only from the parts I mentioned - it excludes seats, handlebars, cranks sets, brake systems and the actual rubber tires. The total for the aluminium bike is 38,00 litres of water, 3,100 kWh and 2kg of solid waste.

When we compare these bikes we can see that the carbon fibre bike will use far more water (150% more), and produces 44% more waste. Whereas the aluminium bike uses 3 times as much energy, mainly due to the brazing process.

The tables below clearly present this information:

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Environmental impact of production

Making a bicycle uses large amounts of water, energy and produces solid waste. Water is used to cool parts after they are brazed, make carbon fibre and clean off residue from paint. Energy is used in every stage of the manufacturing process, from conveyor belts in the factory to heating the metal to be shaped into a frame. Solid materials produce waste when each part is cut to size or fitted to shape.

Water is a precious resources and in this process cannot be reused in nature due to chemical and solid residue. The energy that is used is provided by burning fossil fuels - which are finite resources that produce a lot of CO2. The solid waste creates landfill that either rusts away or gets remelted, leading back to the burning of fossil fuels.

Comparison of bicycle and car usage

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It is well known that bicycles are better than cars in many ways, in terms of CO2 emissions, production waste and finite resources. Whilst bikes run off burning body fat, cars are powered by the burning of fossil fuels and this produces 2,347 grams of CO2 per litre of petrol. When it comes to diesel cars, the output is a lot higher at 2,689 grams per litre (EPA, 2014). These are amazingly high numbers when compared to the CO2 emissions of a bike - zero grams.

On the topic of oil usage, it is predicted that we will “hit a decades-long "undulating plateau" around the middle of the 21st century” (CERA, 2006). If we reach this point, petrol prices will rise by exponential amounts, the global economy will shift out of balance and Australia will struggle to support itself. It is absolutely essential that we lower our use of oil, and it all starts with less cars on the road.

Overall lifetime of a bicycle

At first glance it may seem that bicycle production is wasteful, particularly in water and energy usage and waste. However, if you consider these factors over the lifetime of a bike, the impact is minimal. The longer a bike is owned and loved and used, the production waste becomes less significant. There are many people that have owned bikes for over 30 years, meaning that the initial waste has been drawn out over a long period of time - cancelling out the negative effects. If we look after our bikes, repair them and recycle them, we can offset the environmental impacts of their production.
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To conclude, there are positive and negatives environmental effects of bicycles. The positive benefits are that bicycles cost little to produce, cost nothing to run, and they do not emit toxic fumes. The negative effects relate to wastage in production. The answer the question ‘Is Bicycle Production and Usage Wasteful?’ is not straightforward as there are many factors to consider. Factors include the comparison with cars and the lifetime of a bicycle.

Despite bicycle production being wasteful, over time bicycles are an environmentally friendly machine that are beneficial to many people’s lives. People can advocate for more sustainable production practices from bicycle companies. Rather than buying a factory new bike from a large corporation, people could learn to fix bikes themselves or find second-hand bikes.

If people look after their bikes, repair them and recycle them, they can offset the environmental impacts of their production.