Bike Frame Material Sustainability Thoughts

Hey all, was checking out some steel manufacturing videos the other night and got pretty bummed/reminded the harsh impact that mining has on our environment. From mining coal, to emissions from the coking and smelting process. I know that bicycles are often touted as the greenest transportation solution, and while I don’t think any of us are oblivious to the bicycle industry’s contribution to emissions, I think it’s always healthy to examine the role (however small it may be) in that realm, and also to recognize the collective power we hold as a community to influence/pressure/encourage companies to strive for further sustainability goals.

I did some extremely light research, and found that Reynolds published an environmental impact
study last year, which was a cool read!
Reynolds-Environmental-Impact-1_0_July_2022.pdf (1.2 MB)

Some light googling shows production emissions of a car range from 9,000kg(ICE) - 14,000kg (EV)
and lifetime emissions ranging from 19,000kg (EV) - 24,000kg (ICE) tonnes

We’re obviously not anywhere near that amount of emissions, but I think it’s worthwhile to be aware of the breakdown of the impact that different frame materials have.

Does any of this show up in your conversations with customers?

I didn’t see Columbus offering an environmental impact statement on their website, and am curious where/how/if other manufacturers incorporate sustainable production practices. I’m definitely much more eager to opt for Reynolds tubing after seeing that they’re working to reduce emissions.

I know that extraction is always going to have a negative impact on the environment, and that you can’t take a step without creating emissions. I feel like it’s worthwhile to push for maximum sustainability practices, and to have some transparency as a user group when we tout “sustainability”. A welcome change I’ve started to see is companies transition packing materials away from plastic and toward cardboard.

Anyways, what’s y’alls take on this? Am I beating a dead horse? Am I splitting hairs?

8 Likes

You’re overthinking things when one frame’s worth of steel tubing is equivalent to 43 vegetarian hamburgers…

Real Green Burger (max.se)

Especially compared to the lifetime of a typical steel frame.

Context in the larger picture is important if you want to make a difference.

There are far larger emissions sources that still need to be optimized. There’s not much left to improve material efficiency wise on a basic steel bike.

If you really want to focus on bikes, tires would be an interesting thing to look on, given how many a bike might go through in frame’s lifetime. This study found 4.5 kg per tire emissions:

Rubber Tire Life Cycle Assessment and the Effect of Reducing Carbon Footprint by Replacing Carbon Black with Graphene | Request PDF (researchgate.net)

So, after 4 tires you’ve already hit the same emissions as the frame. That’s maybe two seasons of riding for the average enthusiast…

6 Likes

Great to see someone start this discussion. There are a few layers to sustainability when it comes to bikes. If you want to reduce it down to a CO2 emissions for frame material choice then then yes steel is by far the better option. Starling undertook a fairly rigourous assessment back in 2022 that outlines this. But like @alex.v said, that’s such a small part of the overall picure.

Beyond pure emissions you have things like waste streams to consider. Packaging is a good start there and I agree it’s nice when companies move away from unneccessary plastic packaging. There is also currently no system in place recycle carbon fiber (reinforced plastic) bikes or components. One of the biggest greenwashing campaigns at the moment in bikes is companies touting their carbon products as “recycleable” when in fact they can only be broken down and made into lesser quality products. All new products are still made from virgin material. This downcycling is due to the fibre lenghts being cut. That means every carbon bike product ever produced and being produced is destined for landfill on way or another. That’s a fair bit of plastic. Tyres haven’t been much better although Schwalbe is currently working on a process to recycle tyres as they already do with tubes.

Obviously the real sustainabilty benefit of bikes goes beyond all this though. You can talk about kg’s of CO2 in a frame or waste from carbon fiber or tyres or whatever but the reality is that most people in the “developed” world don’t even ride a bike to begin with. Like you pointed out, cars are terrible for the environment. An order of magnitude worse than cycing in terms emissions. And electric ones aren’t much better despite what the Auto industry is telling us. Bikes as transport is the go!

So the focus should be getting more people riding. And that means making cycling safer and more accessible. Given the cost of a custom bike I’m not sure the custom frame world has a huge role to play in that part of the equation, notwithstading some of the specialty work custom framebuiders have done for people with disabilities. But we also need to shift the cultural attitide that bikes are a lesser form of transport. And I think that’s actually where the custom bikes have a role to play. If you look at shows like MADE (or the HBSA here in Australia) you see so much effort goes in to them to elevate the bicycle and legitimise them in the eyes of the public. I think that makes it a really meaningful pursuit. Even if you wanna make one out of plastic haha.

11 Likes

I’m with @bushtrucker with changing the mindset and concentrating on getting people on bikes and making environments safer to cycle.

Also, the quality of the bikes needs to be addressed. We now live in a disposable economy where mass market bikes can be purchased for $100.00.

5 Likes

In the context of bikes…more bike trips more better.

E-bike use is starting to put a dent in oil demand.

4 Likes

Heya,

I don’t have a response based around frame building but I do have a thought based around general MFG + production at any level.

  1. For larger companies the initial “push” to get them to adopt greener practices is quite large but it doesn’t require a single effort and doesn’t have to be done with $$$. In other words, things like praise to MFGs that offer transparency + show efforts to make things greener goes along way (at work we figure that for every complaint at least 100 other people have experienced the same issue and for every praise at least 400 people feel the same way . . . its just too much effort to reach out). And calls/emails to companies that are not matching their competitors efforts are felt just as much. (Our c-suite is very sensitive to competition and when someone compares us to another company there is often a “bee in the bonnet”).

  2. 5% change isn’t a lot but it’s HUGE. I’ve made this argument over and over. 5% of a single bottle kept out of a landfill is nothing but 5% of 10 million bottles is 500k kept out of a landfill. 5% of $10M annual revenue is also $500k.

  3. $500k is nothing to sneeze at. And is enough to push for more, better, further development and wider application. Here’s my example: we stopped laminating cardboard so its now 100% recyclable, that led to using soy-based inks, getting rid of polybags, switching from cotton to bamboo bags, designing boxes to be display + shippable, and ultimately a project where I’m trying to incorporate cork, silk, recycled polystyrene and ABS into our helmets and I got a wee bit of $$ to play with bio-based plastics (PEBAX is a crazy cool material BTW).

  4. One brand doing this paves the way for other brands and for raw material suppliers to make changes. Patagonia + REI are good examples.

Anyway, my point for tangential rambling is this: it’s effin’ rad that we’re paying attention to this and asking the questions. Don’t forget to send praise and let MFGs know that you’re paying attention and don’t feel shy about asking companies to do more. If pestered enough, if the consumer is asking, change will happen (just expect it at a pre-global warming glacial pace).

Finally, vote with your $$. Big companies are extremely data driven. Buy the “greener” products. Sing praises about the “greener” products. Turn this into a marketing story for yourself and for the companies your’e buying from. I guarantee that there’s some dolt (me) that’s going to harvest that and try to sell the board of directors on future projects.

4 Likes

Thanks for starting the conversation! I’ve thought a lot about this topic. It was a big reason I wanted to make frames in the US and now a big reason I’m considering having frames made over seas.

One really important consideration is transportation. In Trek and Starling’s Environmental Impact Reports they found that freight (mostly air) was one of the highest contributors to their environmental impact.

It’s pretty surprising how much tubing travels before it gets to you.

  • Reynolds - Raw Material India/China > Tube Forming Germany > Butting UK > Shipped to Builder (source 9:11)

  • Kaisei - Raw Material Japan > Formed and Butted in Japan > Shipped to Builder (un-confirmed)

  • Columbus - Raw Material Japan > Formed and Butted in Italy > Shipped to Builder (un-confirmed)

  • Tange - Raw Material Japan > Formed and Butted Taiwan > Shipped to builder (un-confirmed)

  • Fairing - Raw Material ? > Formed and Butted Taiwan > Shipped to US > Shipped to Builder (un-confirmed)

  • KVA Stainless - Raw Material ? > Formed and Butted USA > Shipped to Builder (un-confirmed)

  • Titanium - I haven’t looked into titanium but I believe there are several mills in the US and Canada but perhaps someone can weigh in.

Paint can also take considerable transportation and resources.

I think if you’re focused on making the most sustainable bike in the US then It’s likely an unpainted stainless or titanium frame with other parts from the closest proximity to you.

Devils Advocate

That said you could definitely argue that the smaller scale of the US companies inherently takes more resources and could potentially offset the transportation accrued by larger scale productions.

It never ends!

3 Likes

That’s a super great point in regards to country of manufacture/shipping emissions! It makes me think of the piece @cjellmone did about frame builders in Taiwan, and the stigma that often comes from overseas frames. It’s something I think about too when getting all amped about made in USA stuff (which I still think is dope), but the ping-ponging of tubes across the world is definitely an interesting facet in that conversation!

2 Likes

Hahaha I love the burger units, really puts it in perspective :joy:

That’s an excellent point about tires! I know that in car comparison world, car tire pollution is insane.

One thing that it reminds me of too is when the International Ski and Snowboard Federation banned the use of Fluoro waxes due to their environmental impact. I think about that all the time when slopping tri-flow or dumonde tech on my chain and riding through streams, which brings up another tangential question I’ve had about how good those Eco-flow biodegradable chain lubes are.

I agree that it’s inane to split hairs like this, but I think it’s an awesome thought experiment to get familiar with the impacts we have!

2 Likes

@Coco_PMW Heck yeah! Bike quality and accessibility is a huge challenge in rural Alaska. Department store bikes are often the only bikes available to these communities, and they are often unrepairable. These communities are the last stop for a lot of waste, so they just end up in the landfill leaching into the environment.

@ElysianBikeCo and @earle.b - I love the perspective about the financial impact we can have on encouraging companies to pursue further sustainability! The recent articles about E-bikes makes me think of the significant harm the cobolt mining industry is inflicting on the DRC, and how much attention that is getting. I like the idea of incorporating that social and economic pressure into our work. Custom builders are definitely such a small segment of the market, but I do think that we are unique in how close of a relationship we have with our manufacturing and sourcing methods. Thinking of it like we have an opportunity to be an example of bikers putting our money where our mouth is in pressuring “the industry” to emphasize sustainability.

Especially with @PineCycles point regarding transportation emissions, overseas frames are also much more affordable and accessible to get more folks into cycling!

I’m really loving all of these discussions and points y’all are bringing up.

2 Likes

I tried hard to source everything that went into my frames from local suppliers. Unfortunately as complexity went up and my needs for specific products and materials my supply is mostly out of my region. Which has been super frustrating. Part of what I am try to plan out now is how to bring all of that back to my door step. It means investing in some bigger tooling, like tube benders etc. but still there are suppliers that arent local or even in this country for some parts. Im looking at maing some parts in house to cut down on the imbodied energy that goes into them.

1 Like

When it comes to frame tubing the only time material might be air shipped is to the artisan frame builder. All other transport in the production supply chain is either by sea or truck, with far lower emissions. Trek air shipping product has more to do with their trying to make the bike industry into H&M and Zara (fashion and season driven) than with anything inherent to how products need to be moved around the world.

2 Likes

Thanks to everyone

I believe the role we play is to change the culture of cycling. I recently visited the San Francisco “Dump” (recycling center) tour with fellow frame builder Rebicycle. It is pretty crazy to see the scale of waste being generated.

When I was in school we were taught the three R’s:

  • reduce
  • reuse
  • recycle

At the SF dump tour, I realized there are way more R’s now!

  • refuse
  • reuse
  • repair
  • repurpose
  • reduce
  • recycle
  • rethink

Just like @CharlieSBI, I also find myself going down the rabbit hole of: “Everything I do is bad for the environment, so I should do nothing”. However, bikes are amazing, life is short, and we need to be able to enjoy things sustainably.

Refuse:

I am working on an EC37 headset design, and I asked that star nuts and headset caps are not included. Why? because most people have them lying around and a lot of carbon forks come with the expansion plug and top cap.

I do feel a bit hypocritical about manufacturing 100 new headsets, and then pointing out that the most trivial piece is omitted for sustainability. However, I think the headsets will reduce the overall material usage in headtubes, and result in a more repairable bike.

Repair:

We need to make bikes repairable by the average person. How many bikes are sitting in people’s garages in disrepair? How many bike’s don’t get ridden because the fit was never right, or the bike makes annoying creaking sounds?

Repurpose:

I love that 30 years later, 90’s mountain bikes have found a new home as commuters, college campuses, ATB’s and city bikes. Not only do they work well, but they look really cool. Sadly, I can’t think of a bike produced today that will be cool and repurposed in 30 years.

I love what Stridsland is doing:

Rethink:

As everyone pointed out, emissions and environmental impact are not obvious and need to be taken into context. The world is always changing, technology always improving (or devolving), and

9 Likes

Great comments everyone and great topic. As was said above, bravo to Trek, Starling, and Reynolds for publishing their data. The Trek report was especially insightful for putting the frame in context with the whole bicycle’s footprint, and for e-bikes as well. Starling’s was great for a small producer’s perspective.

@Daniel_Y 's comments about changing the culture are spot on. I think a thing the bike industry does need to address in the ubiquitous call for “N+1”. Does an average recreational cyclist that does a few events every year really NEED a road bike, a cyclocross bike, a gravel bike, an XC bike, a trail bike, an enduro bike, and a park/freeride bike, etc etc? Obviously not, but the default reply from almost any cyclist is “N+1”.

I’m not here to tell people how many bikes they should own, if they were really justified in upgrading to AXS shifting when they had a perfectly useable mechanical system already - everyone’s fulfillment curve looks a bit different. But we all should be striving, as this article puts it, to maximize our “joy-to-stuff ratio”, which is to say, exist on the fulfillment curve. In reality it isn’t just a curve, but represents a pareto frontier where infinite suboptimal fulfillment outcomes are possible for a given investment. A bare minimum responsibility is making sure we at least get up to the line (if you buy a bike, ride it).

http://www.heidorn.info/keith/living/articles/frugal.htm

I’ll posit further that by mental reframing, we also have the ability to move our individual maximum fulfillment (the enough point) to the left.

Contentment comes not so much from great wealth as from few wants. — Epictetus

Thanks all!!
Gus

3 Likes

Thanks for the insight, that was a great read. I really appreciate you sharing it. Posting the curve here for posterity:

image

I think growing up in an immigrant family in the US shaped my perception of the fulfillment curve. My parents had to be frugal to survive, which helped us start with zero, climb through survival, comfort, and tap on the door of luxury. Maybe the immigrant journey is why state-of-the-art engineering never really interested me. I get more excited about the engineering of a Toyota Prius than a F1 car. The same can be said about cycling: I find more challenge and fulfillment in designing optimized, efficient, and pragmatic bikes over superbikes.

Sometimes I go too far, and I find myself hitting the “enough” peak in cycling. Some examples:

  • I have too many bikes and not enough space
  • I start dreading the cost and time of having to do maintenance
  • To me owning a full suspension is so fun, but ends in regret (does not get ridden, maintenance is annoying)

This is a good reminder for me to make changes and scale things back.

Some quotes I thought were very impactful:

Ecofrugality is not living without necessities; it is not deprivation in any sense. It is finding a personal balance point among happiness, responsibility, consumption and the spending of money and life energy.

The key is remembering that anything you buy and don’t use, anything you throw away, anything you consume and don’t enjoy is money down the drain, wasting your life energy and wasting the finite resources of the planet.

An interesting thing often happens when we stop consuming before reaching the enough point and use any remaining income or time to give to our fellow humans and other living creatures: our sense of fulfillment goes up . We find satisfaction and peace of mind knowing that our lives have made a difference in the life of at least one other person.

3 Likes

I don’t understand this conversation…
Aren’t the several fully functional 50 year old bicycles in my garage a pretty good testimonial to how sustainable bicycle frames are?

Aren’t the millions of cheap disposable bicycles being produced every year a much larger issue than the steel for a few thousand
artisan frames?

Don’t the millions of cheap disposable E-bikes being produced every year have a much larger impact than a few thousand artisan frames?

Isn’t making fewer, higher quality products inherently less wasteful than mass-producing garbage?

I mean really.

You don’t even have to throw away a damaged steel frame. You can use bits of tubing for repairs or modifications or for some of the smaller details on new frames or even (heaven forbid) make new things like racks.

But what do I know?
I’m just a guy wearing 25 year old trousers.

6 Likes

The world would be better if “enough “ on the curve would move back to border “comfort, luxury “

1 Like

I contacted Titanium Joe since i get most my Ti tubes from them and here’s what they said about the source of their tubing. I was under the impression they got most of their tubes that framebuilders buy from surplus/leftover cuts from aircraft manufacturers like Boeing but it turns out that is not the case.

"It can vary in regards to where our material is sourced and what the origin is. Most of our seamless Grade 9 tubing comes from a manufacturer we have worked with for 20 years out of China. Generally any of the ASTM B338 Grade 9 tubing you see on our website is from our private mill in China. There are some items we have available that are surplus items. We have a number of tubes that are HAYNES, which is an American manufacturer. We also have a number of items that are SANDVIK, another American manufacturer. These would be considered surplus items. We don’t buy from Boeing, we have contacts who deal in large amounts of surplus materials that we have worked with for a long time. It is possible they may source material from Boeing or similar companies, but we aren’t sure. With surplus, our knowledge of what the material is comes from our trust and relationship our supplier, as well as markings on the material. Often times if we have American-Made surplus it does have Haynes or Sandvik mill markings. And if it has markings from these manufacturers, it is American-Made.

Most of what you buy appears to be tubing and it mostly is the Chinese ASTM B338 material. Sometimes you buy solid round bar. Some of our bar is surplus, some of it is certified meaning it comes with the original test reports from the manufacturer. We often have a variety of American-Made, VSMPO (Russian) and Chinese certified bar.

We have been working on and are bringing in some more options in tubing that we are sourcing from a Japanese manufacturer we work with. We are bringing in a lot of the most popular sizes for bike builders to give them an alternative option to the Chinese tubing. Our Japanese manufacturer is even DFARS compliant.

If you are unsure of what the origin of an item is you can always ask us or our website may even have information to identify it. If a tubing item says “CERTED TO ASTM B338”, it comes from our Chinese mill. If it is American made or more specifically Haynes or Sandvik, the item description will clearly note this. It it just says “SURPLUS” chances are it is not marked but you can always double check with us. You will notice some items say '“JAPANESE DFAR, CERTED TO ASTM B338”, these are the new items we are beginning to stock from Japan. The bar items may not always specify or sometimes they just simply say that they are certified. You can always check with us on these items.

Additionally whenever we process and confirm an order, we send an email including the invoice, pack-slip and all material test reports (certifications). If you look at these documents you will see where the items originate from. If you look back at your last order confirmation (Ref. Order # 32931), you will see the material certs attached for all the items except the 0.750"OD x 0.035"WT tubing you ordered, which was American-Made surplus."

5 Likes