With every pedal stroke, you're leveraging free, sustainable, and totally eco-friendly energy derived from your body. If there is a clear sky above you now, look up and pat yourself on the back, because you've done your part.
However, just as with training, or really anything in life, it's always possible to squint your eyes a tad and wonder, "What more can I do?" It's not that we're advocates of never being satisfied (big nod to mindfulness here), but the planet is literally at stake in the race to clean up our act.
So, bike food. We all need it; we all eat it. Think back to your last ride, what was in your pockets? Store-bought bars, gels, or even homemade Skratch-inspired rice cakes wrapped in foil/plastic?
Even if the word organic is printed over and over again across the packaging, it doesn't necessarily mean that there is anything environmentally friendly about it. After all, an organically grown mono-crop palm plantation is still responsible for disappearing biodiversity.
Moreover, this is all without getting into the obvious — plastic packaging itself, even if covering organic/sustainably-harvested ingredients, isn't sustainable itself.
This leaves us riders in a bit of a bind, doesn't it? We need to eat on the bike, but want to keep our footprint as pure as the perfectly cadenced turning of our chainring.
With a dash of creativity and an openness to new habits, it's entirely possible to ride, eat, and stay true to environmental responsibility and zero waste goals.
Let's wander through a few ways to keep it green while staying topped up on a ride.
Zero Waste Cycling Food
No matter what, you'll have to contain the food you're carrying on the bike somehow. For reasons of weight and practicality, synthetics like plastic and food-grade silicone are very tough to look past. Can you imagine replacing a ziplock bag with a stainless steel case? Yeah, neither can we.
So, instead of looking to dump synthetic wrapping/containers altogether, try keeping them at peak usefulness for longer by reusing them or replacing with cloth when possible.
We get it, gels are awesome. How many times have they come to the rescue? But gel packaging is a shocking waste of one-time-use materials that will finally biodegrade when humanity has started colonizing distant galaxies. Instead of buying boxes of gels, you can easily make your own at home, then fill up a GoToob (or equivalent mini portable food-grade squeeze bottle) before heading out.
Clif Bar, ProBar, Larabar, countless bars. Cheap and tasty, they make it easy to reach for the back pocket, unwrap some crinkly stuff, get that energy, and move on. Have you ever marveled at the sheer amount of trash noisily occupying your pockets after a long ride, though? Making your own bars at home following a simple, nutritious recipe is usually cheaper per bar, gives you a greater degree of control over the purity and source of ingredients, and lets you wrap it up using compostable/biodegradable FDA approved food packaging films – or even better yet, cloth. Furoshiki bags are a cute & responsible way to transport your food, though maybe not the most practical if you’re making chocolate chip blondies for a midsummer ride.
This one isn’t too difficult since you’re already reusing a plastic bottle. However, if you’re in the market for a new one, Tacx, known for their indoor trainers, is producing biodegradable drinking bottles made with sugarcane-derived polyethylene and post-consumer recycled materials. The trend is catching on with the pro peloton at large (even after years of watching hundreds of pro riders ditch their bottles to the side of the road), with big bottle brands like Elite launching their own biodegradable bottles as well.
Constant Effort — Even If Your Practice Isn't Perfect
Do these practices amount to zero waste cycling? Insofar as you will still be creating trash, no. Using biofilms to wrap your food isn't quite the same as keeping it in an eternally reusable stainless steel tiffin or drinking your water from a titanium bottle.That doesn't mean to fall into a tailspin of nothing matters nihilism, either. Doing what you can from where you are is all-important — sweat the smaller details later after establishing a practice and getting comfortable with being more conscious about the impact of even mundane things, like bike food.
Setting your aims too high right away could keep you from attaining eco Valhalla. Once you start digging into the sustainability of each product you're purchasing and consuming, it's easy to get overwhelmed, making it almost impossible to start in the first place.
Go a little bit at a time, and be forgiving with yourself. Even if your cycling food practice isn't immediately as sustainable as it could be right off the bat, try improving in cycles. Start with gels or bars, find ingredients that work for you and the environment both (avoiding things like palm oil and small amounts of ingredients wrapped in single-use plastics), and get your system down.
Then, as you scale your system up, you'll easily find places to make improvements. Before you know it, you'll be buying bulk for the staples you need, thinking about locally produced goods, and will find a lot more gratification from riding by thoughtfully connecting to your bike food, too.
Resources for Creating & Eating Sustainable Bike Food
Just got to say this off the top — we don't receive any promotional benefits from any of the brands, shops, or items mentioned in this or any other blog post. It just so happens that there are a lot of people doing amazing work in the realm of sustainability that you should know about!
The bulk section
Not every grocery store has a bulk section, but some, like Sprouts, Whole Foods, and a new generation of bulk-only grocers like Precycle, Fillgood.co, & Cookbook are making it much easier to buy your ride food ingredients without the wasteful packaging. Make sure to check Litterless for a comprehensive, nationwide look at where to shop in bulk.
Yeah, remember those? They're still a great place to pick up many of your ride food essentials from local sources. Extra kudos if you bring your own containers & bags.
Back to basics
Do you need to eat processed, prepared foods on the bike? Way back in 2010, the good people at CleanBinProject.com documented their adventures in zero waste bicycle touring. Amongst their many tricks for riding without generating waste was keeping small mesh bags onboard filled with "...trail mix, candies, dried fruit, and granola." Simple, filling, and pretty dang thoughtful. What other foods can you easily fill a small reusable bag with to hold in your pocket, top-tube/handlebar bag?
Creative people are finding new ways to reuse readily available & easily composted materials like coffee grounds into useful objects. Kaffee Form is using spent coffee grounds to make cups, Cove is making bottles out of natural, non-toxic biopolymer.
When it comes to zero waste bike food, the only limiter is our own imagination and will. I spent years buying the premade stuff because, well, it just never occurred to me to do it another way. Now it has, and there's simply no turning back.
If you have any tips, resources, recipes, or thoughts to share with us, please get in touch - we'd love to share them in a follow-up blog post.