Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Carbon Is Black Not Green

Carbon fiber: Ultimate frame material or environmental disaster?
Bicycling in the 21st Century is a much different affair than it has been anytime previous to this era. While much of the past in bicycling was accomplished in and on metal, today it is increasingly being done on bike frames, forks, and parts made from carbon fiber.

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
One of the byproducts of making carbon parts, besides the greenhouse gasses, is........left over carbon fiber bits. Sheets are cut, carbon parts are sanded and ground down, and the resulting waste, about a third of each sheet ends up so, cannot be recycled easily. In fact, according to one account, the waste is dumped into the sea!

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.


Phillip Cowan said...

I've spent the last 37 years as a machinist turning chunks of metal into useful and to my eye beautiful parts. I've had to work really hard to overcome my basic contempt for plastic. Now you've given me another reason to knock the stuff, haha. It's funny but I never thought of carbon as "sexy". Even the most expensive and well made CF parts still look cheap and flimsy to me. When I want to see sexy bikes or components I spend time on Peter Weigle's Flickr page. I guess I'd better shut up. I'm sure the kids are rolling their eyes by now.

Doug M. said...

hear! hear!

Skidmark said...

Most of us care about the environment, few of us truly care for our environment

blooddoc23 said...

Those bamboo frames are sounding better all the time!

Mac said...

Just like with cars, the most "green" alternative is to buy a lightly used quality product, maintain it properly, and then use it until it is beyond repair.

I bought my Cross Check new, though. Not sure how many more miles I need to ride it before I'm OK with picking up another new bike.