One of the heavyweight arguments in favor of riding bikes for transportation is the relatively low environmental impact. With the exception of walking, biking is probably the most environmentally friendly way to get around. Knowing that, it'd be pretty easy for any bike shop to grow a huge ego and sit on their high horse, shaming anyone in the vicinity with a coffee cup, plastic straw, or driving a car. A bike shop could do that, but they'd be hiding their share of cheap, plastic, mass-produced skeletons in the closet. In this article I'm giving you some inside baseball: what is the real environmental impact of bicycles and bike shops? And is there a way we can improve it still?
Bicycles don't pollute. In fact, it's one of their best features, if you ask me. But there is still an energy cost to operate them and to manufacture them. There's the food that you eat to power your muscles to ride the bike, and that food (most likely) required fossil fuels, water, and arable land in order to be grown and/or raised. Then there's the cost of steel and aluminum which must be mined, and plastics which come from petroleum which has to be extracted from the Earth and then doesn't biodegrade. Does the use of a bike for at least a couple decades offset the environmental impact of mining the original iron ore? In just a few minutes on the topic, it's easy to tumble down a rabbit hole, eventually reaching even more complex questions like "Is it worse to commute on a bike and eat bacon every day than it is to drive a car and be vegan?"1 These are tricky questions that are above my pay grade. But, I digress. The point is, bikes do have an environmental cost, and while we can't force all our customers to eat organic kale grown on Chicago rooftops as fuel to power their bikes, there are parts of the environmental cost that we do have control over, and those things we take very seriously.
Maybe someday we'll be making bikes out of bamboo that we grow locally in the alley behind us, but for now, the biggest thing we can do to diminish the environmental impact of our bikes is to divert the waste that we create as a business away from landfills. And by waste I'm mostly talking about plastic. And there's a lot of it: plastic protective packaging, bubble wrap, the plastic bags accessories come in, and the styrofoam tubing that ensures new bikes we import don't arrive all dented and scratched up. The amount of waste just in packaging that comes to us with every shipment is shameful for whoever is sending the stuff, and frustrating for us to have to then deal with.
Plastic packaging is sadly a bike industry status quo. Few bikes are made locally, which means the ones that are sold here are shipped from far, far away. Plastic and Styrofoam are the go-to protective materials for these bikes which cross oceans and multiple countries. As an individual business we don’t have the requisite power or leverage to change the entire bike manufacturing industry, but we do have control over where and how we dispose of the plastics and packaging that comes through our shop. That’s why we choose to recycle and reuse plastic wherever possible. We take plastic to the local Jewell-Osco, which purportedly recycles plastic bags and all other plastics to be ground up with wood shavings and turned into recycled lumber. It’s frequently used in parks for outdoor seating and shelters as well as playground equipment.
Who knows, maybe one day they'll be turning all this plastic into bakfiets boxes?
When we pressed several representatives from Jewell about where they take the plastics or who picks them up, they couldn't give us a straight answer. It's possible those decisions are made by upper upper management and it's all so automated that anyone working at the local Jewell has never even been briefed on it. That's the optimistic take, anyway. Until we can sleuth out the end location of that plastic packaging, our method of recycling (and its efficacy) remains uncertain, at best.
If you know of centers that take plastics or other materials for recycling, or if you’re a bike shop that already has a routine of having materials picked up, chime in! We want to know what works, what doesn’t, what's been disproved as unhelpful, and what new ideas are on the up and up that can be implemented to help avert the enormous waste crisis we face. We’ll share a few of our own ideas if there are other individuals, bike shops, or other businesses that can stand to benefit from the dialogue.
It'd be cool to just bike our plastic to a place like this.2
Given the cryptic nature of plastic recycling services offered by groceries, we've diversified our approach to reducing, reusing, and recycling stuff. We have a few more tricks up our sleeve we think are worth sharing.
We have a dedicated two-tiered storage shelf for the ubiquitous foam tubes that wrap nearly every bicycle that gets shipped to us. It's an inconvenience storing this stuff, as it takes up a lot of space in the height of spring and summer when we’ve ordered and assembled tons of new bikes. It’s an inconvenience that we think is worth absorbing, though, since the alternative is sending that foam to landfills where it won’t decompose for tens of thousands of years. By storing the foam, we have a cache that we can pull from to protect bikes and other accessories that we pack and ship across the country. It’s not an entirely balanced function, as the inputs (bikes shipped to us with styrofoam packing) to outputs (bikes and accessories that we pack and ship out) are fairly lop-sided, but it’s the best system we’ve devised so far, and it’s constantly being reevaluated and improved on.
Our storage trifecta: cardboard, plastic, and styrofoam
Cardboard recycling is probably the lowest hanging fruit we can pluck. It’s something the city itself has a program for collecting (a real blessing), therefore we take advantage of that service. If others out there have testimonies of better options for cardboard, we’re all ears. I think the example of cardboard is great for touting the importance of city programs in tackling climate change and pollution. When the city takes care of it, it takes a lot of the thought and (literal!) legwork out for small businesses like us, which means more businesses are likely to use the service. (As opposed to piling all your cardboard into a cargo bike and riding to some industrial park so far away it might as well be in Indiana).
Composting isn’t something you’d think a bike shop would ever need to think about—not like a restaurant or bar, which likely generates far more organic waste. But as individuals who eat meals, here’s one more type of substance we can prevent from becoming waste (it's only waste if you waste it!3). We’re good friends with Healthy Soil Compost, a largely bicycle-powered compost collection business. An individual membership costs you around $20 per month and your food waste will all be taken away to become worm food and then rich, healthy soil. Again, it's really handy when a service exists to do all the heavy lifting for you! *hint hint, city of Chicago*
An image of the compost-hauling bike trailer from our friends at Healthy Soil!
Rubber pneumatic tires are like the feet of your bike. We rely on them to resist punctures and give us a smooth, comfortable ride. But rubber tires can be a huge hazard to communities into which they’re dumped or disposed. They’re breeding grounds for mosquitoes and rats, can catch fire and release toxins into the air, and they take thousands of years to biodegrade. Luckily, rubber tire recycling and retreading facilities exist and we’ve found one in Chicago’s south side (https://tri-statedisposal.com/waste-tire-disposal/). We store and accumulate damaged and worn out tires and tubes (we don’t offer this service to the larger community, just to customers—we’re not THAT big of a bike shop after all!). When we accumulate more than we have the space to store (usually after a year) we take them all down to to be recycled.
Destined to become artificial turf for hundreds of high schools, no doubt.
Metal recycling is an easy one to neglect. There isn’t a city program to take the kinds of metals that come out of bike shops really (at least, not that we know of). Steel and aluminum cans, sure, but corroded, stripped nuts, bolts, or busted alloy components require a different path to repurposing. Even though the city lacks a formal service to haul away these materials, an informal service exists in the form of scrappers who drive through the alleys picking up metal, which they then take to a metal recycling center. We really rely on the convenience and regularity of these metal scrap collectors! If you happen to know of an even more convenient or effective method, though, don’t hesitate to tell us.
A typical J.C. Lind Bike Co. metal scrap deposit.
Now if we could get these folks some cargo bikes or trailers we'd be living in 3019.
General stuff: “waste not, want not.” There are lots of little things we’ve learned over the years that help us reduce our waste but they're also just thrifty. Whether it’s cutting zip-ties right at the zip/clasp so they can be reused again, or taking the staples out of boxes and keeping them to also be recycled, we try wherever we can to instill a culture of saving, reusing, and thriftiness that every member of the business can get behind.
While this discussion might prompt some to become gloomy or defeatist, there’s at least hope that we’re not the only ones in the bike industry talking about and tackling these issues. A recent issue of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News ran an article on this very topic. You can read the whole article here: https://www.bicycleretailer.com/retail-news/2019/08/02/suppliers-and-retailers-work-reduce-reuse-and-recycle-bike-packaging#.XXVLnW5FzIU
As stated in the article, we as retailers can only do so much (and currently, it feels like we’re the only ones doing anything at all, since we’re the ones that get stuck with all the packaging from manufacturers). The end goal, though, is to not just reuse or recycle materials, but reduce them to the point where we can nearly eliminate them. We’re at a critical point where either… a) nothing happens or b) the quiet murmurings of dissatisfaction with the amount of waste in the industry crescendo from murmurings to an unignorable cacophonous roar, pressuring manufacturers and logistics experts to come up with new, biodegradable or reusable packing materials. So if you're a bike shop fed up with handling all these environmentally harmful materials then maybe we can collectively send a message to manufacturers and demand biodegradable packing materials? Maybe in the future all bikes will be packed in recycled cardboard boxes filled with popcorn? (Hey! It’s the packing peanut you can eat! Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it).4
1) Jon Lind
2) Jon Lind
4) Jon Lind
5) Healthy Soil LLC
6) Jon Lind
7) Jon Lind
1 I first learned of this worrisome prospect in a Momentum Magazine article, of all places. I'm not sure how much peer review that Harvard research has undergone, but the fact that it suggests driving (on the right diet) is more sustainable than bicycling, isn't all that far-fetched. It seems reasonable that your other consumption choices (flying coast to coast on the regular, for instance) can offset the good you may be doing in one specific area of your life, i.e. bicycling.
2 If you're fans of the Roman Mars podcast 99% Invisible, you may already know that recycling, as a viable concept/solution, is in jeopardy. In the U.S. we regularly ship recyclables to other countries like China because we tend to have more recyclables coming out of households than we have facilities to process. These recyclables, as of 2018, are banned from being delivered to China. Until we reduce our plastic usage and increase our own local recycling facilities, much of our recycling is actually ending up in landfills.
3This aphorism is borrowed from the book The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins. Not only is it a great primer on composting in general, it also does a great job of discussing a topic which is enormously taboo in western culture.
4 I have actually used popcorn as packing peanuts in care packages about 4"x12"x8", and it works great! I'm also an avid popcorn eater so I buy it in bulk and generally have a lot of it lying around, though.