|Carbon fiber: Ultimate frame material or environmental disaster?
Most of us never think twice about this. Carbon fiber usage maybe will raise a few concerns about strength and failures, but we almost never consider the origins of our lightest, most sexy bits for cycling. When you start to dig in to this, and how the end cycle of these carbon bicycles looks, you begin to realize it isn't as sexy and cool as the industry makes it out to be.
The situation is somewhat tragically ironic. Many think of cycling as the most green and efficient means of human transportation. The impact of cycling on our world is all too often focused on the end activity and how that compares to other activities. However; we really need to take into account the origins of the bits and baubles we pedal. When one sits down to do this, it becomes apparent that carbon fiber has an ugly, black side to it.
Just the making of carbon fiber fabric is intensely unfriendly to the environment. Fabric is heated in several stages, but not burned since this process lacks oxygen. It is done in a controlled way in order to render the fabric into carbon fiber. It is an energy intensive process and it creates several gasses, including CO2, as a byproduct. Hmm....not looking so green already. But then you have the resin which binds the fabric together, more pressure and heat, and the hand labor, don't forget that part. In one resource I found, it was stated that carbon takes about 14 times more energy to produce than steel.
|A sheet of carbon fiber
As I stated, carbon fiber can now be recycled, but the process is expensive, energy intensive, and it isn't widespread. Waste carbon is typically dumped into landfills where it can stay in its original state indefinitely.
Of course, alternatives to carbon for cycling are not without their own environmental issues. The making of steel, aluminum, and especially titanium, is pretty "un-green". That said, most of these bits and frames are recycled and repaired more easily than carbon fiber frames and parts are. While carbon fiber can have a long lifespan, it does fail, wear out, and when it does, it becomes a liability. Not to mention how where this stuff is made is being polluted by the processes necessary to make it. If you are a cyclist that cares about the environment, that might be a concern.
It's hard not to fall for the lightweight charms of carbon fiber, that's for sure. However; I'm not so sure most of us have considered, or even know about, carbon fiber's creation processes and end of life cycle concerns. It is definitely something to take seriously, in my opinion.