10 March 2018

Bamboo Or Carbon Fiber: Are Those The Choices?

Bicycles are made either from carbon fiber or bamboo.

At least, if I didn't know any better, that's what I would think after reading an article on The Huffington Post website.

It's one thing for a journalist to be ignorant about a subject before writing about it.  But Tom Levitt, the author of the article in question, seems to have committed a cardinal sin (Well, at least I've always thought it was a cardinal sin!) for a journalist:  not doing his research.

Also, he seems not to know what he is trying to tell his readers.  It would have been fine if he'd stuck to writing a feature piece about the London club whose workshop teaches people how to build frames from bamboo.  That part of the article is interesting enough, at least to me.  I wouldn't even have minded if he'd written about the environmental damage caused by the manufacture or disposal of carbon fiber, or of bicycles generally.  

A class in the Bamboo Bicycle Club's workshop.

But the premise of his article seems to be that teaching people how to make their own bamboo bicycles is a way to mitigate the environmental damage caused by disposing of bicycles.  That, itself, would have been all right if he hadn't conflated the making or recycling of carbon fiber bikes with the making or recycling of bikes generally. 

What's all the more perplexing is that the article includes this photo of share bikes dumped in Shanghai, China.  Again, exposing the environmental damage and sheer waste of such a practice would have been valid.  With my knowledge of bicycles, however, I would say that few, if any, of those bikes are carbon fiber.  Most, I would reckon, are mild to mid-grade steel.  

Why is that important?  Well, steel can be recycled many times without losing strength or other qualities that make it a good structural material.  That is one reason why it's the most-recycled metal.  Not far behind steel in that category is--you guessed it--aluminum.  If any of the bikes in that photo aren't made of steel, they're probably aluminum, which loses little when it's re-used.

On the other hand, carbon fiber is recycled by chopping it to bits and burning off the plastic resin that holds the fibers--which lose significant amounts of their strength in the process--together.  Of course the loss of strength is a concern to bike-makers, but it's even more of a problem in the aerospace industry, where use of carbon fiber has expanded even more than in it has in the bicycle industry.

Carbon fiber use is also expanding more rapidly in the automotive industry, which also might not want to use materials weakened by recycling.  And, for all of the carbon fiber bicycles, boats, gliders, tennis rackets and such available to consumers, the military is still, by far, the biggest user of carbon fiber composites.   Let's just say that the armed forces aren't noted for their concern about the environment, much less recycling.  Moreover, armed forces are willing and able to spend whatever is necessary to obtain the most advanced composites, so they wouldn't be interested in recycled materials.

So...If Tom Levitt had stuck to one topic--bike-building classes, bamboo bikes or the environmental hazards of carbon fiber--he might have written a lucid and enlightening article.  Instead, he has revealed his ignorance or laziness. 

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