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Saturday, December 17, 2011

The not so green bike: carbon fiber's carbon footprint

The not so green bike: carbon fiber's carbon footprint

By Peter Suciu, from Detroit, MI
Much is made about the environmental benefits of cycling. Bicycles are almost universally touted as being “good” for the environment, because riding a bike is green due to their small—if any—carbon footprint when compared to automobiles. But—even disregarding their environmentally costly production—what about the carbon fiber footprint that is left when a carbon bike ends up in a landfill?

The fact is it will be there for a very long time.

Carbon fiber is neither biodegradable nor photodegradable. It's a composite material, which means that it's a combination of materials, whereby the different materials remain chemically separate and distinct within the finished structure. And as manufacturers have told us: it's all about layers of material. The precisely engineered layers are what give a carbon frame superior performance, but those many layers also make it a bear to recycle.

Use of carbon, as a bike frame material is fairly new at least considering that steel had been used for more than 100 years to build bicycles. American manufacturer Craig Calfee was among the first to build a carbon bike, but the Italian manufacturer, Colnago, can be credited introducing carbon to the European pro ranks. Colnago partnered with Ferrari in the 1980s to build bikes from the, then, space age composite technology, which Ferrari exploited on the automotive racetrack.

The C35, a Colnago-Ferrari collaborative project, arrived in 1989 and went on to claim victories in the sport's highest profile events. By the mid-1990s several companies including early carbon pioneer Kestrel, as well as Trek were producing full carbon fiber frames. And today, just about every brand builds a large percentage of their bicycle line from carbon.

With all of these carbon frames out there many are likely to end up in landfills simply because their is no clear path to recycle the materials, but change may be coming as bothTrek and Specialized announced carbon recycling initiatives— just this year...


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