One of the most enlightening moments that happened to me during my four years at university was when I was introduced to life cycle analysis. The carbon footprint of products, services, and travel is much talked about these days, but 20 years ago it barely struck a chord with my sophomore self. In his opening lecture of the semester, my professor gave us a real-life example that we can all understand. When designing a public restroom, you have three options for people to dry their hands: a hot air dryer with a fan; a paper towel that is used once and disposed of; and a linen towel roll that is used, washed and reused.
Which method was better for the environment? Everyone in the room experienced all three methods, and a show of hands confirmed most students’ intuition that, of course, it must be a reusable linen towel. Other methods either created large amounts of paper waste or involved producing and feeding a machine with hot air. But we were all wrong. The linen towel was actually the worst for the environment. When you analyze the entire life cycle of making this laundry and then washing it again and again with detergents, its environmental impact far eclipses the other two hand drying methods. The reason that reusable linens had a brief surge in popularity in washrooms was that they proved to be more environmentally friendly.
The bicycle industry is championing itself as a leader in moving our societies away from carbon-emitting passenger vehicles. Bicycles produce far less carbon than cars and emit nothing. In turn, e-bikes, which have a much larger carbon footprint in the manufacturing process than traditional bikes, are way ahead of the environmental impact of electric vehicle production. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty, when you analyze the entire supply chain, you quickly realize that selling a lot of bikes and e-bikes is not without a significant carbon footprint.
Last year, Trek—one of the world’s largest bicycle brands—became the first bicycle manufacturer to publish a comprehensive sustainability report. Trek is making a big stake in the future of cycling, not only to grow its business, but also to improve the planet. And while preaching about electric bikes replacing short car trips is a good thing, the Waterloo, Wisconsin-based brand knew that getting the rest of the industry to move toward sustainable bike manufacturing first required some serious introspection.
Flipping through the report, you notice all the typical greening trends: reductions in air travel and corporate travel; increasing dependence on renewable energy sources and alternative materials; removal of plastic waste from packaging; and creating landfill-free production capacity. Good to hear that this bike company makes water bottle cages from discarded fishing nets pulled from the ocean. But the real meat for carbon reduction came in the second half of the report, with Trek’s goals to expand the use of bike-sharing systems in cities across the US and, more importantly, to change the share of bike transportation (getting people to choose bikes over cars). Through life cycle analysis, Trek came up with the “430 rule”: if you cycle 430 miles (692 kilometers) that you would otherwise have ridden, you have saved the carbon equivalent of what it took to build your bike. . Sorry Whistler, that doesn’t refer to the shiny carbon double suspension mountain bike in the back of your truck (author guilty as charged). But it makes a strong case for an electric bike for commuting, which is likely to replace short car trips.
The key to unlocking the potential of the increasingly popular e-bikes is, of course, more bike lanes in cities. It’s something we’ve come to take for granted in Whistler, with a local geek already pushing to ban e-bikes on the Valley Trail and citing the ruling against Segways 20 years ago as precedent. But that’s a topic for another time.
The point of all this is that accountability starts with transparency. Just because it’s a two-wheeled bike doesn’t mean it gets a pass on its carbon footprint. Trek’s marketing team no doubt had reservations about revealing that their full-suspension Fuel EX with a carbon fiber frame is 32 percent higher in production than the best-selling Marlin entry-level alloy mountain bike. But issuing such a detailed sustainability report is an example for all other bicycle manufacturers to follow.
For those interested, the number of kilograms of CO2 emitted by production (including the entire supply chain) was studied on four different bikes in the Trek fleet: an entry-level alloy MTB (Marlin), 116 kg; flagship carbon fiber road racing bike (Madone) 197kg; full suspension carbon trail MTB (Fuel EX) 153 kg; and carbon fiber electric MTB (Rail) 229 kg.
So unless you’re going to ride your new bike for 692 kilometers on trips you’d otherwise drive your car on, buying a bike is a net positive increase in carbon emissions. OK, so the e-mtb has the worst carbon footprint, but what if you started riding your e-mtb to every long-distance trail in Whistler, like the Wedge or Cheakamus, instead of riding your bike in the back of your car? You see how things get a little subjective.
Bicycles are key to the future of our planet, and getting more people out of cars and cycling in cities and urban areas should be a priority. But that doesn’t mean ignoring all the baggage that comes with the cycling industry.
Vince Shuli is mindful of his own carbon footprint. For questions, comments and suggestions for The Outsider, email email@example.com or Instagram @whis_vince.