We take a look at the people, ideas and companies that are seeking to offset and eventually eliminate mountain biking’s hidden environmental impacts.
Mountain biking is inescapably and intrinsically linked to nature. Our bikes are nothing without trails and the natural environment they pass through. The mountain ranges, hillsides and woodlands are our second homes as riders, but with the world facing a climate crisis, how at risk are these precious landscapes? How much are we, as mountain bikers, contributing to and accelerating their decline?
It’s easy to think that riding our bikes isn’t adding to this problem. After all, cycling lowers fossil fuel consumption, eases traffic congestion, and improves public health by reducing the risks associated with obesity. But if we are only hitting the trails for sport and leisure, are our bikes, kit and riding habits threatening the playgrounds for generations to come?
Take, make and waste
The delivery of an extraordinary number of products across the planet at affordable prices is inextricably linked to our current pattern of rapid increasing resource extraction, waste production and pollution. As a result, we are faced with rising sea levels, more extreme weather and a decline in biodiversity. All of which threaten the very environments that enable our sport.
For Erik Bronsvoort, Director of Shift Cycling Culture – a non profit working to achieve a more sustainable future for our sport – we have become cogs in a machine that promotes endless consumption, and that needs to change. “Mountain bikes have come a long way since I started riding in the mid ‘90s, when sustainability was not an issue,” he says. “They have become more durable and better able to handle ever more extreme trails. This has required new standards for parts, and designs focused on the lowest cost at the point of sales, not over the whole lifetime. Even if the gains are only marginal, the marketing machine makes us – as riders – want to buy the latest and greatest, whenever it hits the market. Sell more, sell faster. ”
“This economic incentive fuels our desire to buy something new, even though our ‘old’ bike is still good enough to have a lot of fun on. The result: waste more, waste faster,” he continues. In other words, we are reaching the limits of our planet- trashing, take-make-waste model of production. So what can be done?
Going full circle
Globally there is a shift happening towards a circular economy. But what does ‘circular economy’ actually mean? It’s about creating a closed loop, where we design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.
For Erik it is undoubtedly the path the bike industry needs to take. “We need to cut emissions caused by the production of the products we use – all of the steel, aluminium and carbon- fibre that is used to make bikes is very CO2-intensive to produce”. To do this is going to mean a change of approach: “This will require new designs focused on extended use, the use of different materials and, maybe – most importantly – new business models that do not rely on selling as many products as possible, but on making sure the customer is able to use their products for as long as possible”
A greener generation
Fundamentally shifting the behaviours of some of the biggest brands in the industry will be a gargantuan task, and knowing how they are approaching this isn’t always clear, with only a handful of bike brands, including Specialized, Trek and Schwalbe, openly outlining their efforts to the consumer.
However, there is a newer breed of brands that have been able to start from scratch and embed sustainability into the DNA of their businesses. One of these is British pedal brand Pembree, although it still takes a determined approach to make a difference. “For us, it has been made far easier through investing in our own factory,” explains founder Phil Law. “We are in control of the whole product lifecycle, from design, manufacture and how the products will be used, through to how they should be recycled.” Pembree has produced pedals that are 99.9 per cent recyclable at the end of their life. “I strongly believe that any manufacturer needs to take responsibility for the production, use and subsequent recycling of anything that they release into the market,” explains Phil. Teaming up with Temwa, an organisation that works with communities to plant more trees, protect forests and adopt sustainable agriculture, Pembree has also set out to balance the 92kg of CO2 emissions produced in manufacturing each pair of pedals.
Getting the balance right
Pembree isn’t alone in looking to balance its carbon emissions. Endura’s One Million Trees initiative, launched at the start of 2020, committed to planting one million trees annually for the next 10 years to eliminate the brand’s carbon footprint – part of a range of efforts the business is taking to reduce its impact on the planet.
BikePark Wales is on a journey to become the world’s first carbon- neutral bike park. From 2021 it has also teamed up with Temwa, along with many other initiatives across the business, and will be balancing all CO2 emissions it produces through use of uplift vehicles, trail building, site transport, vehicle repairs and gas used to heat the centre and provide hot water. For Martin Astley, founder of BPW, it’s a topic close to his heart, with a career background as an ecologist and waste management consultant. “I feel we have to act as a species now, and for me personally, BPW is the biggest generator of CO2 and general environmental impact that I have created as an individual, so I feel a responsibility to reduce that.”
Martin explains the response to its steps hasn’t always been positive. “We took some flak on social media for doing this; some people were claiming it was “middle class greenwashing”, says Martin when discussing their offsetting. “But it’s a tool that’s available to us right now to start the journey to being carbon neutral. I think that’s one of the most important things, you can hang around waiting for the perfect technology or the right moment to tackle this problem, or you can just roll your sleeves up and make a start with the tools you have to hand.”
Back to the drawing board
While recognising the impact you are having, and offsetting that impact, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, achieving a fundamental shift in sustainability starts right back at the beginning of a product’s life cycle. The consequences of the decisions made at the design stage are where around 80 per cent of environmental impacts are determined.
Oli Pepper, founder of clothing brand Morvélo, is starting from the top and looking at how he can alter the design of his products: “We want our products to be as easy and efficient as possible to clean, dismantle, and rebuild, ready to be sold again without the requirement for virgin materials”, he explains. “It’s a long way off yet, but we’re making progress.”
Muc-Off is another brand where seemingly simple redesigns through its Project Green Initiative are showing the impact design changes can have. It has taken steps including making all its range refillable, redesigning its Drivetrain Cleaner bottles without a plastic over-sleeve, and introducing products such as the 1L Bike Cleaner Concentrate bottle, which has 89 per cent less packaging than the equivalent two bottles of Nano Tech Bike Cleaner. All of which have helped the brand to remove over 50 tonnes of plastic from its operation.
It’s a material choice
Between the drawing board and the end user is the most impactful phase: manufacturing and production. We are often wholly disconnected from this stage of the process and there is little transparency to what really goes on, probably because supply chains are typically global, massive and complex. Specialized alone works with over 260 suppliers to deliver its range of bikes and accessories. Most mass manufacturing across the industry is delivered out of sight on the other side of the world, in the far east – predominantly in Taiwan and China.
Whether you are on an aluminium or carbon frame – or if you are one of the increasing number of us riding an e-bike with a lithium battery – the manufacture of a bike and its requisite parts requires sourcing, extracting and producing different materials from around the world. It will pass through several stages before emerging as a finished product. Every part of that process has an environmental impact, ranging from the consumption of raw materials, the energy required in production, and any waste generated in the manufacturing process.
Little work has been done to measure and address the sustainability of the bicycle supply chain, but working with Duke University, Specialized is one brand that is over a decade into learning about this area, and some of its findings are fairly eye-opening. For example, it found that the annual electricity requirement for heat-treating its aluminum Roubaix
road frames was 58.7 gigawatt-hours. That is the equivalent to New York City’s power consumption for nearly five and a half days. The total number of bikes manufactured each year is a number that’s well guarded, or perhaps genuinely unknown, so taking just one model from one brand as an example gives a staggering insight into our hobby’s levels of consumption and its impact on the climate.
Move from bikes to kit production and the story is no better; total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production globally, at 1.2 billion tonnes annually, is more than that from all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
With 97 per cent of materials in textile production coming from raw, or virgin, materials, introducing recycled elements
into the manufacturing process is a step that some brands, including Five Ten, are taking. This season marks the launch of Primeblue, a recycled material made in collaboration with Parley Ocean Plastic. “This will bring us one step closer to becoming a fully circular company”, explained Luke Hontz, Senior Product Manager at Five Ten. “As a brand we need to be accountable for the impact we have on nature and the environment.” Two new models of Five Ten shoes now use recycled polyester and sustainably sourced cotton, and so begins the brand’s commitment to completely phase out the use of virgin polyesters by 2024, and have all shoes and apparel made with 100 per cent recycled materials.
Room for improvement doesn’t end at redesigning or shifting manufacturing processes. What happens when the products are made and on the way to you or I as consumers? “One of the lowest hanging fruit is packaging and packing materials,” says Morvélo’s Oli Pepper. “Most of us have to ship things around, and just something as small as switching to paper packing tape would put a nice dent in the amount of plastic going to landfill”.
At the end of last year, Cannondale released news of its move to 100 per cent recyclable bike packaging in Europe. “Our objective was to design a better packaging system,” announced Eugene Fierkens, General Manager for Cycling Sports Group Europe. “Make it better for the environment, make the packaging protection stronger, and significantly reduce assembly time.” The news from Cannondale followed just after Trek introduced modified packaging for its most popular single model – the Marlin hardtail. Although it didn’t achieve 100 per cent recyclable status, the transition on one bike model alone has – according to Trek – kept almost 23,000kg out of landfill. That sounds like a lot, and it is; it’s the equivalent weight of two double decker buses in fact. But consider if one brand, changing the packaging on one bike model, can prevent that level of waste, what could happen if the industry as a whole adopted new standards around packaging?
Keep the wheels turning
So it’s designed, produced, shipped and now the end product has arrived with us as riders. What can we do to change our behaviours and reduce the impact that product has on the environment? One way is quite simple. Keep it for longer. Using a product for longer is widely recognised as a key method of reducing its environmental impact. It’s not rocket science to realise the longer we can make something last, the less need there is to create new products.
One brand seeking to stop us buying another headset, bottom bracket or bearing ever again is Chris King Precision Components, who prides itself on producing components to last a lifetime, with a warranty to match. Last year it became the first bicycle manufacturer to achieve B Corp status – an accreditation that certifies a company delivering a positive impact on society and the environment.
But as much as we might wish to reduce consumption, the tide of technological innovation can make it hard to extend the lifecycle of our bikes and components. Back to Erik Bronsvoort: “I used to own a Chris King headset. I installed it on three of my bikes, but then the next bike came with a tapered fork and integrated headset. The King headset sat on my workbench for years, before I sold it to a friend who was updating an old fixie”. Are we at risk of engineering obsolescence into products in our quest for the latest and greatest? Erik believes so: “Yes, although I do not believe this is done with intention. Backwards compatibility should become part of the design philosophy of every company. And its business model.”
It may be a simpler process for kit manufacturers to improve post-purchase support: “Brands need to be responsible for their products even after the sale, which then helps with repair and recycling,” says Oli Pepper. He believes it’ll also help bring brands and consumers closer together. Morvélo is working hard to implement a repair scheme, an initiative other clothing brands such as Patagonia, Alpkit and Endura already have in place, encouraging us as riders to move away from replacing a whole garment when only one small part of it requires repair.
The end of the road
Closing off the loop, is how we behave at the end of a product’s life. One question to ask is whether it really is the end of the road? The old adage, of one man’s garbage is another man’s gold, has never rang truer than over the last year, as secondhand sales have soared across the board.
So could your old bike, parts or kit be put to good use by someone else? Shift Cycling Culture is encouraging us to rummage through our spares boxes and consider a gear swap party. Or why not donate your bike to one of the growing number of not-for-profit bicycle recycling schemes across the country?
You might be able to rehome your bike or parts as a whole, but recycling still presents challenges when we look at raw materials. Carbon-fibre recycling is complex and not widely used. Specialized has established a take-back scheme for carbon frames based on existing carbon-fibre recycling programs used by the aerospace industry, but the process of recycling results in shorter fibres and they have yet to develop enough demand for the recycled product. The question of recycling e-bike batteries is only starting to be raised in the industry, with Specialized announcing in March it is investigating new recycling options with a firm called Redwood Materials, run by one of the founders of Tesla.
Protect our playgrounds
Once the lid has been lifted on the issue of sustainability, for some there is no escape. “Cycling’s beauty is that it enables you to connect with nature and the outdoors, so it increasingly felt wrong that what we were doing as a brand could actually harm the very thing that drew us to cycling in the first place,” Oli Pepper from Morvélo shares. “Once that penny drops, there is no going back. In fact it motivates us even more and makes us strive to be in business as a force for good”.
For Erik of Shift Cycling Culture, the time for action is now. “We’ve experienced enormous enthusiasm from the industry,” says Erik, who through Shift Cycling Culture organises events for the cycling industry, like online meet-ups and workshops. “Let us use this energy to transition to a circular cycling industry. A world where customers win because they are able to ride more reliable products that require less maintenance. Where the industry wins because it can create equal or more value with less material. Finally, where the planet wins because there will no longer be any waste or pollution, and nature will get a chance to regenerate.”
The issue of climate change isn’t going to disappear. There is no Planet B. It’s time for us all to wake up to the impact we have on the environment and realise that riding a bike does not absolve us from this responsibility. As consumers, we can make changes small and large. We can ask questions and demand more from brands, look after what we have, and ask ourselves whether we really need that next riding jersey or that new bike? As an industry there will be a need for collaboration and openness, for potentially seismic shifts in the way we behave. But together we can achieve more and protect our sport and the natural environment we love to ride in.
Head to Shift Cycling Culture and find out more about how you can play a part in a more sustainable future for our sport. Join in its events or campaigns, or organise one of your own.