How Green is Your Bike?

A look into the impact of bicycle manufacturing around the world.

Written by:
EdgeRunner assembly and packaging at an Xtracycle production facility north of Taichung, Taiwan. Photo by Ross Evans.

EdgeRunner assembly and packaging at an Xtracycle production facility north of Taichung, Taiwan. Photo by Ross Evans.

It is indisputable that bicycles are one of the greenest transportation options, but how green is the manufacturing process? “There’s a lot of embodied energy in a bicycle,” said Ross Evans, inventor and CEO of Xtracycle. He listed off some of the ingredients: steel from China, rubber from Indonesia. “It’s a product of our modern global manufacturing.”

From China, With Love

Several bicycle manufacturers we contacted for this story were unwilling to discuss the carbon footprint of their manufacturing operations. Based on a study by Shreya Dave of MIT in 2010, they probably don’t need to worry about it. Dave’s Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) considered a variety of modes of transportation, from walking and bicycling to planes, trains, and automobiles. She calculated the life cycle energy use of the typical bicycle to be 60 kilojoules per passenger mile traveled (PMT): 51 kilojoules for manufacturing and 9 kilojoules for maintenance over an estimated 15-year life span. Electric bikes were only slightly more energy intensive at 82 kilojoules/ PMT, because of a small amount of fuel use and increased manufacturing costs. Compared to the 4027 kilojoules/ PMT consumed by a sedan and even the 1441 kilojoules/ PMT of Boston’s Green Line train, bicycling was a big winner in lifetime energy use. The only mode that bests it is walking, which comes in at 0.

GOODY_GreenCycling_Factory-LEAD-Photo-Hank-Leung_WEB

Photo by Hank Leung

Dave’s study also looked at greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile traveled, factoring in the CO2 from heavier respiration by cyclists and walkers. By this measure, bicycles and e-bikes were the clear winners at 20 and 21 grams/ PMT each. Dave found that walkers emit 28 grams of greenhouse gases per mile while a driver in a pickup truck emits 549. The carbon footprint of manufacturing a standard bicycle (8) came out to less than operation and maintenance (12).

While manufacturing a bicycle has much less environmental impact than North America’s favorite mode of transit – the car – some bike makers are still seriously considering their product’s effect on the planet.

“We started looking at it because our customers wanted to know,” said Katharine Horsman, North American General Manager for British manufacturer Brompton Bicycle Ltd. The company’s website had a calculator displaying the carbon footprint of different forms of transportation at one point. “You can’t improve your footprint if you don’t know what it is in the first place,” said Horsman.

Xtracycle’s Ross Evans is keenly environmentally conscious. “I’m the kind of person who takes cold showers [to minimize energy usage],” said Evans. And he has concerns about what he calls the “largely misunderstood, hidden consequences of manufacturing.” In Xtracycle’s early days, the cargo bicycle company was based in California’s Sierra Mountains and, Evans said, they sourced many of their materials within the US. The company bought American steel tubing, sent it to Oakland, CA, to be built, sent that to the Sierras, then down to Sacramento for powder coating, and back to the Sierras for packaging and shipping to customers.

Never miss an issue!

Try a free 1-year digital magazine subscription. Sign up today

“Our stuff was moving around, I would say, five times more than now when we manufacture in Taiwan,” Evans said. He cautions against a knee-jerk “Asia is bad” attitude, noting that the compact manufacturing area in Taiwan, where a huge amount of bicycle manufacturing takes place, minimizes transportation before the final products get shipped to destinations around the world.

Evans added that the CO2 emissions from moving bicycles in a huge ship across the ocean is actually relatively small compared to moving them in a courier van across North America.

Soft goods production north of Taichung/ Daja, Taiwan, at a factory producing for Xtracycle. Photo by Ross Evans.

Soft goods production north of Taichung/ Daja, Taiwan, at a factory producing for Xtracycle. Photo by Ross Evans.

Grow a Green Bike

“Bamboo bikes have almost a negative carbon footprint,” said Craig Calfee, President of Calfee Design, which makes bamboo and carbon fiber frames and bikes. “The living bamboo plant may have consumed more carbon dioxide than was used in manufacturing and transporting the frame.”

Mining and manufacturing using aluminum, titanium, or carbon fiber is resource intensive. The qualities that make titanium a great material for a bicycle frame – hardness and durability – also make it energy intensive to refine, with 70 percent wasted in the machining process. Steel is not only energy intensive to create but also directly emits CO2 as a byproduct of the production process. Aluminum production consumes five percent of the electricity produced in the US each year and accounts for almost two percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, though bicycle production accounts for only a small fraction of that total. Evans cites green energy guru Amory Lovins as stating that aluminum is congealed electricity and notes that recycling 29 aluminum cans will save enough energy to run a television for a month. Recycled aluminum uses just five percent as much energy as mining and producing new metal.

Craig Calfee working in the machine shop at Calfee Design. Photo courtesy of Calfee Design.

Overall, is bamboo the answer to creating the ideal low-impact bicycle? “Bamboo is the most ecological, saving even on transport because you could potentially obtain your bamboo out the back door of your factory – since it grows easily anywhere,” Calfee said.

In addition to being renewable, bamboo has a lot going for it. It’s both light and durable. “Bamboo and carbon fiber do seem to have an infinite fatigue life because they are composite materials,” said Calfee, who also makes carbon fiber bikes. He still owns his first bamboo bike, built in 1995. “I know there are some 100-yearold bamboo tea houses in Japan that have survived all kinds of calamities over the past century,” he said.

So why aren’t the streets filled with bamboo bikes? Calfee referred to a marketing study of the two main reasons that people buy a product: first, it has to work; second, you have to believe that your friends aren’t going to laugh at you for buying it. He feels that bamboo frames have yet to overcome the second hurdle and become an accepted part of the street ecosystem.

Calfee is doing his part to bring bamboo bikes to more people. “It would be nice if more people could get on bamboo bikes – and they don’t have to be just for rich people,” he said. Because the bikes are labor intensive, price points can be high for the average commuter. To combat this, Calfee outsources the labor on some of his bicycles to Africa. “Developing production capacity in Africa is very expensive, which is one of the reasons why a lot of things aren’t made in Africa,” he said. Still, the move has paid off and he is able to offer African-made bamboo frames for under $1,000.

Green Design and Life Cycle

While aluminum is an amazing material, according to Xtracycle’s Evans, the problem arises when “we use it as if it’s disposable.” Every bicycle maker we talked with cited design and longevity as important considerations when looking at the carbon footprint of a bicycle. “We really think about our bikes lasting for a lifetime,” said Evans. “Even if you outgrow your bike, you will sell it.” “We don’t build in obsolescence,” said Brompton’s Horsman. “We’re not a disposable designer.” She noted that most of their customers, if they no longer want their Brompton, sell it to someone else to refurbish and reuse. The company still stocks parts for older models, keeping them in circulation. “We’re very much about supporting the end user …throughout the ownership of their bike.”

“We spend a good deal of effort in engineering the hinges in our bikes to be easily serviced to extend their effective lifetime,” said Tern Bicycles’ Marketing Director, Dwight Jurling. “We want our products to be able to last to make the best use of the resources that go into making our bikes.”

According to Tern’s Founder, Joshua Hon, “Our philosophy is that higher quality, serviceable products have a much longer life span – which we consider to be a much more responsible use of the earth’s resources.” He laid out a number of choices that his company has made to increase product life, such as using stainless steel for critical hardware and redesigning the hinges on their folding bikes so that the bulk of the wear falls on a bearing that is easy to replace. Tern also sources rims from a solar-powered manufacturer and tires from Schwalbe, which has a tire recycling program in Germany where the company is based. The list doesn’t end there: some Tern bikes have dynamo hubs that generate electricity as wheels rotate – doing away with the need for batteries – and they follow eco-pack guidelines when they ship their bikes, minimizing packaging and making the cardboard they do use easier to recycle.

A Longer, Happier Life

When Calfee found himself up against competition from carbon fiber bicycles made with cheap labor in China, his motto became, “If you can’t beat ‘em, repair ‘em.” He has repaired numerous bicycles that failed because of bad design. “At the end of the day, a lot of people throw those bikes away,” he said. “A more expensive bike might be a greener purchase because it’s designed to last longer.”

Clay Wagers, co-owner of Oakland’s Bay Area Bikes shop, has been repairing bicycles for 16 years. He cited big box stores as the biggest culprits in selling bicycles with outsized carbon footprints. A cheap, glitzy bike may start its life in a very dirty, polluting manufacturing facility and include what Wagers called a “ridiculous amount of unnecessary materials.” Designed with little thought to function and sold very cheaply, these bikes often end up at the back of someone’s garage or in a trash heap. He thinks the unpleasant experience of riding one of these inferior bikes may discourage people from becoming daily cyclists, noting, “If you start out on garbage, you’re not inclined to actually think about how investing more is justified.”

Small footprint shipping boxes, seen here at Tern's Taiwan production facility, allow Tern to fit more onto a shopping container, saving shipping costs. Photo courtesy of Tern.

Small footprint shipping boxes, seen here at Tern’s Taiwan production facility, allow Tern to fit more onto a shopping container, saving shipping costs. Photo courtesy of Tern.

Ultimately, the greenest bicycle is the one that gets ridden every day. A road bike that travels to the hills on the back of a car isn’t doing much to reduce carbon consumption. An electric cargo bicycle that can get its owner from her front door and through all her errands with ease means fewer greenhouse gas emissions every time it goes out.

“I want my bike to be one that I can bring anywhere,” said Evans. He cited the importance of design features, which Calfee referred to as “delighters”, in getting people to ride more. “Buy a quality bike and ride it as much as possible,” Evans said. “Buy a bike you love. Buy a color you’re in love with.”

Wagers pointed out that you can “green” your ride on any bike by following better maintenance practices to keep the parts working smoothly and for longer. He advises keeping your chain lubed, your tires properly inflated, and your brakes well maintained. “If your bike is working properly, it’s going to be a more enjoyable experience and you’re going to be happier about riding a bike,” he said.

Calfee gets a bit mystical about the power of bamboo bikes to inspire joy. “I have a lot of different bikes here that I ride. When I hop on a bamboo bike, I notice that I’m in a better mood,” he said, adding that his customers have reported this as well. “I think there’s a universal human trait that we want to live in harmony with nature.”


Laura McCamy is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger based in Oakland, CA. She lover her new Brooks England saddle because it reminds her that life can be hard and awesome at the same time. @LMCWORDS

6 Comments

  • ☼ Back in the 1990s I was on the board of a magazine that did an article like this, focusing on Toxic Release Inventories from EPA data. Of course, that was when we built a lot of bikes in the United States and didn’t offshore them to nations that don’t maintain TRIs or have a legacy of a strong labor movement. Unsurprisingly, there are impacts (chrome was the worst), but as with everything bicycle it is orders of magnitude better than any alternatives.

    I find it puzzling that shipping bikes across the Pacific would be said to have less of a carbon footprint than activities on the ground in North America, where the bikes would be shipped on the ground anyway (ideally, and ideally by rail). I do appreciate Xtracycle, though tops in this category would be Green Gear in Eugene, Oregon, who manufactures the Bike Friday and the Haul-a-Day cargo bike. They have used least-toxic practices since their inception and continue to.

    One word about steel bikes, though, they last and last, and with a little work they can get a new life. The fixie craze a few years back was touched off by people taking old 10-speeds and cutting off the derailleurs, for example. Even Xtracycle began as an add-on longtail for old bikes. (That said, I also love Craig Calfee’s bamboo bikes and have fantasized about them, but haven’t gotten one.)

  • KW

    Life cycle energy use of walking is 0??? If your shoes last forever, and are made by Bornean monkeys out of fallen Mangrove leaves. My experience with “green” commuting methods indicates bike tires outlast shoes 10X.

  • Great article, but it leaves unanswered questions about bicycles in general Like what happens to a bicycle when it’s old or damaged and you need to dispose of it. Steel can be recycled back into another bike or something else. What happens to that carbon fiber of bamboo frame? The epoxies that make them strong also make them hard next to imposable to recycle. Can you do the same with aluminum it does it have to be virgin aluminum?

  • The significance of carbon grows the farther up the energy food-chain you go and how you present the data.

  • Joe Tilman

    Okay, that gives a nice overview of green, now how about a little exposition on labor conditions…?

Momentum Mag Shop

A curated shop with a distinctive mix of gear & clothing worthy of the city rider

Shop Now