Feature: Is mountain biking as 'green' as it seems?
By Dan Milner, What Mountain Bike | Friday, January 14, 2011 1.00pm
Cycling is a sustainable form of transport, but is mountain biking as a sport, and the bike industry, really eco-friendly? Dan Milner
When we ask bike distributors what eco-friendly products they stock, the answer is usually: “All our products are green.” It’s wrong, but it’s an easy and understandable trap to fall into. Isn’t cycling green? As a form of transport it is, and as a low impact way to engage with the great outdoors it’s a green activity, if you ride responsibly.
But consider the energy used in manufacturing frames, the carbon footprint of hauling components from their Far East birthplace, and the fact that most of us drive to the trail or bike shop, then we’re entering a grey area. For their product launch last year, one company even shuttled the press up to the test trail by helicopter. So, is mountain biking any greener than, say, playing squash?
For years cyclists liked to hang the eco-friendly tag on any aspect of our sport and pass it off as ‘doing our bit’. But the fact is that making bikes consumes resources, burns energy and produces greenhouse gases. According to Trek, the extraction of a single kilo of the raw steel, aluminium or carbon used in their frames releases 1.3, 4.6 and 5kg of CO2 into the atmosphere respectively.
Meanwhile, clothing company Patagonia’s online Footprint Chronicles show that a single waterproof jacket releases 3.4kg of CO2 emissions from its beginnings as raw materials to delivery as aﬁnished product. So, tagging the bike industry as green is a relative term, with every component and accessory leaving a carbon footprint along the way.
It makes for thought-provoking reading, but the situation is set to improve. With the rise in consumer consciousness, the bike industry is seeing a change in both eco awareness and responsibility, a change that we have the chance to be part of as riders.
Reducing our carbon footprint is the easiest way we can become greener, and offsetting our bike’s manufacturing footprint is a good ﬁrst step. Pedalling makes a good start point. According to Nick Lobnitz at paper-bicycle.com, using one of his beautiful city bikes for a mere 90km instead of driving offsets the CO2 emissions of the bike’s manufacture and shipping from Taiwan.
As consumers we can buy local, reducing the need for shipping from the Far East. On a grander scale many companies are now addressing their own immediate environmental impacts. Trek power their entire Wisconsin HQ with green electricity, a measure that spares 4,500 tons of coal from being burned annually, and Clif Bar’s new Californian ofﬁces sport a barrage of solar panels to deliver 100 percent of their electricity needs.
Kona worked with the World Wildlife Fund to produce guidelines for ecologically responsible bike park design and management, and last year Ergon revamped their product packaging to make it 100 percent recyclable and biodegradable. Using only biodegradable and recycled materials, Green Oil UK also stands out as an example.
Simon Nash, the company’s founder, is taking environmental responsibility even if it nibbles at proﬁts. “A manager at a large company would say ‘but it costs more’, but in reality will a five percent premium for say, recycled paper really break the bank? You need to think about what you buy,” he says. “Think about where it is made, and if there's a greener version.”
While such efforts to reduce a product’s footprint help, no one is going to pretend that our reliance on the Far East for manufacturing is about to change any time soon. After all, as consumers wanting cheaper goods, and shareholders wanting better share returns, much of this responsibility sits on our shoulders. The question is are we prepared to pay higher prices for our kit if it means it’s produced in a more ecologically sound way?
“Shareholder return is deﬁnitely a problem as it rewards short-term results and is always measured on proﬁts and sales, and never on environmental impact,” says Jonathan Petty of Patagonia, a company that has spearheaded environmental consciousness in the outdoor equipment market since 1973.
“As consumers become more aware and if they have a choice of green products, then companies will be forced to change,” he says. For 2011, all of Patagonia’s summer range will be made from recycled materials or will be recyclable through its new ‘common threads’ programme.
Long live the king
So we vote with our wallets – not a hard concept to comprehend. Chris King headsets have a lifespan that often outlives the bike itself. While the company’s green policies extend to rewarding their employees with one extra day’s holiday for each whole month they ride to work, it’s the long lifespan of their products that catch the green mountain biker’s attention.
If you don’t need to replace kit then you consume less resources, power and produce less waste. While it may not please sales departments, reducing our consumption is ultimately the greenest way forward, and the mantra ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ has a deﬁnite place in greening mountain biking. A lack of shiny new parts is not everyone’s idea of fun though, and many companies acknowledge this by looking towards greener products to meet our demand.
Trek’s eco-designed Belleville city bike is 100 percent recyclable and incorporates recycled materials and natural rubber tyres. It’s a healthy starting point, although when it comes to today’s full-suspension bikes, the ‘performance above all else’ stance seems to be the stumbling block in greening our sport further.
“Mountain bikes hold a certain amount of limitations,” says Eric Bjorling, communications manager at Trek, on the subject of whether a 100 percent ‘green’ mountain bike is on the horizon. “As the technology has been pushed, so has performance. Mountain bikes today command a lot more innovation than previously and some of the componentry and suspension designs would have to be tweaked."
So, does striving for performance mean ignoring green alternatives? “I think one of the main hurdles is the fear of compromising durability or the highly technical nature of our products,” says Cortney McDermott of The North Face, a company whose clothing range already includes 51 pieces that have a 50 percent or more recycled content.
Certainly concerns for performance in the outdoor environment are justiﬁed, but solutions are out there and are being expanded. When Nick Bayliss at Royal Racing designed the 2011 Java Shot jersey he looked to recycled coffee bean waste blended into the threads as an anti-bacterial odour-inhibitor. To many companies, ‘going green’ is a process of incremental steps. Recycling is often a combination of choice and ﬁnancial necessity.
For Hope, a company that uses 120 tons of aluminium each year and whose ﬁnished Pro 2 hub represents only 15 percent of the original lump of billet, recycling the waste aluminium swarf is a must. But they choose to take it further: “We recycle 99 percent of our waste and only ﬁll one wheelie bin of waste per week, for 80 employees,” says Neil Arnold.
Other companies such as TNF and Patagonia are part of the ‘1% for the Planet’ programme (one percent of proﬁts go to environmental causes) and increasing numbers are committed to bicycle advocacy, ﬁnancially supporting associations that promote cycling as a transport solution or are involved in trail maintenance.
“We view every bike ride, regardless of whether it’s for transportation or exercise, as a green act,” says Trek’s Eric Bjorling. “Every time somebody rides a trail, it's living, tangible proof that the trail, and its surrounding wilderness, matter. I’d love to see more people ride to the trail but the easiest way for people to change their lives through bicycling is to replace those trips that are less than two miles with the bicycle.”
Trek have donated more than US$1 million to the proactive League of American Bicyclists and $10 from the sale of every Trek full-susser goes to IMBA (International Mountain Biking Association) to help build a better future for mountain bikers worldwide.
Corporate responsibility is commendable, but as mountain bikers there are steps we can take. The recycling question is an easy one: strip your old/broken bikes and recycle individual parts. Even carbon frames, once the thorn in the green cyclist’s side, can be repaired or recycled.
Taking responsibility is part of our way forward as mountain bikers and, like most things, it’s about getting the balance right. According to trail building outﬁt Back-On-Track.org, it takes an average of 20 digger hours to complete a single kilometre of dedicated mountain bike trail. That’s a lot of diesel burnt, but once such a trail has been built the potential environmental damage is minimised and so maintenance reduced.
Responsible riding can help. “It would help if riders stopped skidding, not just because it’s a poor riding technique, but it wrecks our trails and costs valuable resources to repair,” says Will Huckerby of Scotland's 7 Stanes network.
While reduce, reuse and recycle play their part, we all love kit that works and in reality no one is about to turn their back on technical developments purely in favour of greener products. But our part in making mountain biking more environmentally friendly begins with awareness, thought and taking action. Our sport may not be as green as we like to think, but as our industry gears up to offer more green-orientated products, we as consumers have the power to make a difference.
How to reduce your impact on the environment
Here are 10 ways to ride green:
- aintain your equipment so it doesn’t need replacing so often.
- Use a hand pump instead of CO2 cartridges to inflate tyres.
- Ride, take the train or at least car share to the trail centre, or ride your local trail instead of journeying.
- If you drive, transport your bike inside your car, not on the roof to get better fuel economy.
- Build a town bike and use it for all those local journeys. You’ll be surprised how your fitness improves.
- Encourage employers to introduce bike commuting incentives, or at least fit a shower/changing room to make the ride to work more comfortable.
- Collect rainwater in water butts and use a gardener’s hand pump sprayer to jet wash your bike for free.
- Go detergent-free in your kit washing by using Eco Balls. They work.
- Join your local trail maintenance group and help combat trail erosion.
- Donate anyused components to charities or recycle them on eBay or Freecycle.
Product spotlight: Green biking kit
Here are some examples of eco-friendly mountain bike clothing and accessories:
Royal Racing Java Shot jersey, £43: The Java jersey is available in short- or long-sleeve versions and blends recycled coffee waste into the fibres to naturally combat odours. Available in black, red or orange.
Flea light, £40 with solar charger: A tiny USB-chargeable four-LED light charged via its own mini solar panel. It boasts 40 lumens and has a neat red/green battery indicator gauge.
Biokork GP1 grips, £30: Ergonomically shaped grips that use sustainably farmed cork and vegetable oil-based gel for eco-comfort. The plastic core and end caps are 40 percent grass fibres too, and the lockring is recyclable aluminium.
Ekolab Recycler jacket, £290: 100 percent recycled jacket with a three-layer construction and 15,000mm waterproof/ breathability rating. Elbow and shoulder stretch panels and pit zips keep it comfy. Available in black or brown.
The North Face
Vicente Fleece, £70: A great autumn riding layer using 100 percent recycled Polartec 100 on the body with Power Dry stretch panels on each side. Available in red, blue, green, grey or black.
LT3 tyre, £17: A fast rolling, close-tread pattern 2in tyre for light trail use uses biodegradable natural rubber instead of petrochemical residues.
Bicycle Brush, £10: A plastic-free cleaning brush that uses stout plant based bristles and FSC certified rubber tree wood for the handle. 100 percent sustainable and 100 percent biodegradable, even the print inks are eco-friendly. Long bristles reach between sprockets.
, £1.30: Organic ingredients, produced with renewable energy and 1% For the Planet make this trail fuel a greenie’s delight. Chewable even in the cold. Available in Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal Walnut or Crunchy Peanut Butter flavours.
Stretch Ascent jacket, £220: Boasting one of the best riding cuts we’ve come across, this ultra breathable, bad weather workhorse is made from 100% recycled stretch material. Large pit zips add venting. Backed by lifetime guarantee.
Almost every part of Ergon's Biokork GP1 grips is eco-friendly, from the sustainably farmed cork to the recyclable lockring
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