The Dirty Secret Of Bicycles

And why bamboo may be an answer.

People at an east London workshop are paying to learn how to make their own bicycle. Nothing particularly unusual about that. But at this Bamboo Bicycle Club session, the bikes are being made with bamboo.

In all the excitement to proclaim bicycles the answer to congested roads, polluted city air and our own health, the materials used to manufacture those bikes often get overlooked.

Carbon fiber, for example, is increasingly popular for new bicycles, particularly racing bikes. The material, though lightweight and strong, is difficult to recycle and cannot be melted down and reused in its original form, unlike aluminum and steel.

Carbon fiber also is dangerous and dirty to work with ― constructing carbon fiber bike frames or wheels means working with toxic resins ― so it’s an unlikely material for encouraging people to build and repair their own bicycles.

It’s also incredibly wasteful. Most people replace a racing bike every three years, adding to carbon fiber scrap, says James Marr, founder of the Bamboo Bicycle Club and a former wind turbine engineer.

Motivated to cut the waste and make bike-building more popular, Marr has set up a club to teach people how to make their own bikes out of bamboo.

Far from just panda food, bamboo is a strong and popular building material in Asia, and it’s well suited to being shaped into a bicycle frame, says Marr. It can grow from seed to harvest in less than four years. Still, its sustainability relies on production standards, for example avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and ensuring natural forest is not cleared for plantations.

“Not many people in the bicycle industry are taking responsibility for disposing of bikes. It’s a saturated and cost-driven industry that won’t change in a hurry,” says Marr, who set up the the club five years ago.

The club’s workshop in London makes around 500 bicycles a year, with a two-day session building your own bamboo bicycle costing around £600, or about $835. The club has opened franchises in Germany and Italy, with more in Canada and South Africa opening soon.

As well as teaching people to build bikes, the club was invited by two NGOs working in Kenya last year to help teach students in Malaa near Nairobi how to repair, maintain and build bicycles. The ultimate ambition, says Marr, is to help reconnect people with bikes and the materials used to build them.

While bike-sharing companies have promised lots in terms of more sustainable transport, they haven’t yet changed wasteful consumer attitudes. Only last month, the Hong Kong bike-sharing company was forced to pull the plug on its operations in France and Italy after vandalism.

“We don’t as a society make much anymore,” says Marr, who says he was shocked by photos of thousands of unwanted bicycles dumped in cities across China.

Ride-sharing bikes dumped in Shanghai, China.
Ride-sharing bikes dumped in Shanghai, China.

“We just click a button and it’s there for us,” Marr says. “It makes us disconnected with how difficult things are to make. As a result, we think nothing of throwing away a computer or bicycle. If people understand and appreciate something they respect it. It’s their bike, they build it. That’s important.”

For mass-market bicycle companies producing their own bikes with carbon fiber, there is an imperative to instill a circular economy ― reusing, recycling and repurposing rather than throwing away.

The standard way to recycle a material like carbon fiber is to chop it into bits and then burn off the plastic glue holding the fibers together. But this process will not create recycled material as strong as the original carbon fiber, says Dustin Benton from the non-profit Green Alliance.

With the rapid spread of carbon fiber in the bicycle, aerospace and automotive industries, Benton says bad habits among manufacturers and consumers need to shift.

In the U.S., a pioneer of carbon fiber bicycles, Trek, has partnered with the company Carbon Conversions to ensure the scrap material from Trek’s manufacturing site in Wisconsin is reused. While not as strong as the original carbon fiber material, the waste can be remolded and reused in sailing boats, laptops and sunglasses.

The catch, of course, is that this only involves leftover parts from the manufacturing process ― not the carbon fiber bikes that are either damaged or scrapped by consumers. That means the effort involves only a fraction of the total carbon fiber footprint of a bicycle company.

A better example, says Benton, is Japan, where recycling infrastructure is required by law to be co-owned by manufacturers. This encourages product designers to work out how to design products that are easier to take apart and reuse.

For consumers not minded to join a workshop and build their own bike, the advice from Benton is simple: “Keep their carbon fiber bikes in use as long as possible by replacing and repairing parts.”

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