You’re probably thinking, “Duh! Of course bikes are good for the environment, we all know this!” But let’s take a minute to make an important distinction between cycling and bikes. The activity of cycling as a mode of transportation has been proven time and again to be beneficial for the environment; however, bikes are commodities made possible by the extractive industries, and they end up in the landfill alongside our diapers, toasters, and other trash. While sport sociologists who conduct environmental research have done an excellent job of highlighting the environmental cost of hosting mega-events, creating golf courses, and operating ski resorts, very few academics have asked questions about the environmental impact of our sporting goods. In fact, in 2009, in an article published in the journal Sports Technology, Subic and colleagues wrote, “The disposal of composite products in an environmentally-friendly way is one of the most daunting challenges facing the sports goods industry.” Thirteen years later, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of this issue.
Capitalism rightfully gets a lot of blame for the waste management problems we face today; however, waste is inevitable in every economic system to varying degrees. In their recent book, Discard studies: Wasting, systems, and power, Dr. Max Liboiron and Dr. Josh Lepawsky argue that both waste and wasting are exercises in power and are not just simple externalities of economic production. They suggest, “people have to be taught to practice and accept disposability as well as other waste practices.” Moreover, environmental sociologist Dr. Myra Hird argues that “we know ourselves through waste.” If we apply these questions to sporting goods, and specifically bikes, how did we learn to accept the disposability of our sporting goods? And what do we learn about ourselves when we unpack the waste created along the bike supply chain?
In November 2017, Outside magazine exposed the fact that bicycle factories in China had been dumping production scraps into the ocean because of a lack appropriate recycling options. Western Europe was once the geographical base of bike manufacturing, but the majority of that labour and its accompanying environmental footprints have been outsourced to China and Taiwan. Whether you are riding a Trek, Giant, Specialized, or Cannondale bike, odds are it was made in a factory in Taiwan or China. Leo Kokkonen, founder of Pole Bicycles, explained to Outside that he was shocked at the amount of energy, labour, water, and chemicals used to make his supposedly sustainable bicycles. He detailed how his lungs burned while riding around the coal-fired factories that were building his prototype frames.
Last year, Trek released its own sustainability report and, unsurprisingly, the majority of its carbon emissions come from the production of its bikes. The average Trek bikes creates 174 kg of CO2 during its production. While the report is very thorough in its carbon emission analysis, the disposal aspect of bikes is still completely absent from it. Approximately 80% of a product’s “environmental burden” is determined during the design process. Thus, if we have not thought about the end-of-use stage at the earliest production phases, our downstream/recycling options become extremely limited.
To make matters worse, there are bikes, and then there are “bike shaped objects.” These bike shaped objects, as some mechanics refer to them, have been designed with the purpose of failure. They are so poorly made that they are lucky to last for 100 hours of riding, often cannot hold adjustments, and have parts that are incompatible with other components. Therefore, even if you want to repair your bike, believe in saving money, and want long-lasting products, many of the consumer level bikes available today are built for obsolescence. The problem has gotten so bad that bike mechanics across Canada and the United States have created a petition asking for brands to do better.
At the other end of the life cycle, bike sharing companies have come under scrutiny for contributing a large amount of bike waste to the waste stream. For example, when Ofo, a Dallas-based bike sharing company, closed its operations in the summer of 2018 it left thousands of bicycles in a pile at a recycling centre to become scrap metal. Bike sharing programs are often touted as the answer to congested, car-centric cities, but when companies such as CityCycle in Brisbane, Seattle’s Pronto!, and Bixi Montreal go bankrupt, all of their bicycles end up in the waste stream. With an estimated 18 million new bikes purchased each year in the U.S. alone, the bicycle becomes an important cultural text that has largely managed to elide environmental criticisms even though it ends up in the landfill with our other garbage.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 from the United Nations is a call for more sustainable production and consumption. The sporting goods industry (and we as consumers) are overdue in critically analyzing and demanding alternative consumption patterns for our sporting goods. When the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) released its commitments to supporting achievement of the SDGs, nothing listed under Goal 12 actually addressed production or consumption. Six bullet points are listed and include actions items such as creating affordable and accessible facilities, promoting the use of public spaces for diverse and marginalized populations, integrating refugees and migrants into communities, raising awareness of people with disabilities, eliminating transportation barriers, and building more energy efficient facilities. However, none of these things really have to do with sustainable production and consumption. So why haven’t sporting goods manufacturers, brands, and consumers been called out as part of the problem?
As a way of spurring discussion (and hopefully action) about these issues, I produced a 15-minute documentary, Revolutions, which asks questions about the waste created by bike manufacturing, explores what happens when you donate your bike to a recycling outlet, discusses how waste is incentivized through crash replacement warranties, and offers alternative ways forward. For teachers interested in unpacking this topic with a class, please consider hosting a screening of Revolutions for students. Please contact Dr. Courtney Szto (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss screening costs and scheduling. As Revolutions is accepted to various film festivals, the viewing options will be updated on the website. You can watch the trailer for Revolutions below:
Author Biographical Note
Courtney Szto is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Her research broadly explores intersectional (in)justice in sports and physical activity. She is the Managing Editor of Hockey in Society and the author of Changing on the Fly: Hockey through the voices of South Asian Canadians. Learn more about Courtney here and follow her on Twitter @courtneyszto.