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Q. Dear Umbra,

As a frequent cyclist, I’ve inevitably been in my share of collisions and accidents. Most bike experts recommend replacing your helmet after any crash, even if the damage isn’t visible. Obviously the two most important qualities of a bike helmet are lightweight-ness and strength. That is best achieved by petroleum-based, non-biodegradable substances. Can you recommend how to avoid hurting the environment with these disposable Styrofoam helmets (other than being a more careful cyclist)?

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Julia A.
Washington, D.C.

A. Dearest Julia,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

bike helmetSmall eco-price to pay for an intact head.Please continue to wear your helmet and replace it after each crash. Cut the straps of your old helmet and write “crashed” on it with a permanent marker, then throw it in the garbage. Biking safely is an ecologically correct practice, even if it occasionally results in a small amount of waste. Two, three, four helmets a year is a small ecological price to pay when we consider the benefits of cycling (though for your body’s sake I hope you don’t go through this many).

Let us remember that biking is emissions-free transportation. Whether you are commuting by bike or simply taking a brief trip to the store every week, you are ecologically ahead of almost every form of transport save walking. If your bike is simply an exercise device, you are keeping yourself fit and providing inspiration for other would-be cyclists.

Secondly, a lightweight helmet made out of plastic is a fairly innocuous object on the environmental scale. As we have learned over the years, plastic is evil due to the raw materials (petroleum) from which it is made and the eons that will pass ere it degrades. On the bright side, helmets are light, and hence do not require overly much fuel on their trip to the bike store or the landfill — which would be a concern were they made of gold. Some companies are tinkering with eco-friendly helmets, but I think you should not lose your head over this issue. You could always save your used helmets for some kind of trash sculpture.

Julia, a hospital visit has the potential for much more ecological impact than does your discarded helmet. Your fitness level keeps you (hopefully) from general ill health, and hence reduces the need for greenhouse-gas emitting trips to the doctor. More important, of course, the helmet protects you from serious head injury and/or death, both of which are far more environmentally costly than a piddling nine-ounce helmet. Let’s say you were not wearing a helmet and bonked your head in a crash. First the ambulance or a friend’s car has to transport you to (and from) the hospital, emitting Earth-damaging gases en route. Then perhaps you have to get a CAT scan or MRI, neither of which would be solar powered. What if you have a bleeding abrasion that requires multiple washings and several sets of bloody sheets and piles of gauze? Maybe they bring you a hospital meal which certainly includes terrible not-shade-grown coffee and some kind of mystery meat from a confined animal feeding operation. In a worst-case scenario, you could scrape off your nose and require years of plastic surgery — certainly not ecologically OK, and sadly a real-life example.

Wear a bike helmet without worrying too much about the environmental consequences. Umbra, also known as Safety Pup, has spoken.