With environmental issues getting harder to ignore, many discussions are had and claims are made about the environmental impact of different materials. The fact that aluminum can be recycled again and again is often cited as a major environmental advantage when compared to carbon fiber,
There is some truth to this. Aluminum is widely recycled, doing so requires about twenty times less energy than making virgin material and, importantly, it actually makes economic sense to do so. In fact, in some places, recyclers will actually pay you for scrap aluminum. Carbon fiber, on the other hand, isn't often recycled. At best, it gets chopped up and made into a reinforced plastic which can be used for something like a brake lever or the sole of a mid-range cycling shoe, but not another bike frame. When that reinforced plastic reaches the end of its (second) life, it's usually sent to landfill. So even when a carbon fiber frame or component is
recycled, this is usually a one-way process, more accurately described as downcycling rather than recycling.
But when companies and commenters lay it on thick about how their aluminum frame is recyclable, it gets me thinking - does anybody actually recycle their mountain bike frame? While aluminum is easy to recycle, bike frames are made of aluminum alloys containing many other metals, plus they're usually painted; this makes it harder and less cost-effective to recycle compared to pure aluminum
The last time I went to my local recycling centre I saw plenty of rusty and unloved kids bikes in a shipping container destined for who-knows-where, but not a single mountain bike made in the last twenty years. Not even one with a hub axle spacing we now know to be unrideable.
Perhaps some of those classic MTBs are still being ridden, but I doubt many are. When was the last time you saw an Orange Patriot or Iron Horse Sunday out on the trails? They used to be everywhere, so where have they all gone? Have many actually been recycled, or are they just sitting in a loft somewhere?
As long as those bikes haven't been sent to a landfill, there is hope they'll be recycled eventually, But if the average bike is used for say ten years, then sits in a loft for twenty more, that's a lot of aluminum taken out of circulation for a long time, meaning more has to be produced in the interim. So if you have recycled a frame, how old was it at the time?