Since motorcycles are much smaller than cars or other vehicles, you might assume they have a smaller environmental impact.
Motorcycles are not good for the environment because they release emissions such as carbon dioxide, VOCs, and nitrogen oxides.
While they are more fuel-efficient, they generally release more emissions than cars.
Here’s everything you need to know about the environmental impact of motorcycles.
1. How Do Motorcycles Affect the Environment?
The biggest way motorcycles affect the environment is arguably due to emissions.
Motorcycles emit carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), hydrocarbons (HC), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Carbon dioxide is a well-known greenhouse gas.
It can stay in the atmosphere for between 300 years to 1,000 years, which is why it’s the biggest contributor to global warming.
For example, they both play a role in the formation of tropospheric ozone, which is a cause of air pollution and acts as a greenhouse gas.
PM has been linked with acid rain. These particles can also deplete the soil of nutrients, which disrupts the ecosystem and alters the pH of bodies of water, which can be harmful to marine life.
Meanwhile, hydrocarbons do act as a greenhouse gas and are even more effective than CO2 when it comes to trapping heat.
There is also the body of the motorcycle itself to consider when gauging the environmental impact.
Generally, motorcycles are made from steel and aluminum, but you might also find graphite, magnesium, and composite in a motorcycle too.
These materials are non-renewable and are sourced via mining.
Mining not only causes pollution but also physical environmental degradation due to deforestation and soil erosion, which can disrupt a pre-existing ecosystem.
With that said, motorcycles seem to last from 12 to 15 years, which is not much different from cars.
Plus, it’s not completely unheard of to see vehicles even older than that on the roads if they have been properly maintained and serviced.
So, there is not a constant demand to replace defunct motorcycles.
At the end of their lifespan, motorcycle parts can be recycled.
In fact, 80% to 100% of old scrapped motorcycles are recycled or reused, which is promising as recycling saves on energy and resources.
2. Are Motorcycles Less Harmful than Cars?
Especially when it comes to pollutants other than CO2, they’re a much bigger polluter than cars.
One study analyzed the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC) caused by popular car and motorcycle models.
The results of the study clearly showed that motorcycles emitted significantly more pollutants per km than cars.
Specifically, they emitted 13% more CO2, 36% more NOx and 335% more Hydrocarbons.
Examples of NMHC emissions are ethene, propene, ethyne, pentane, benzene and toluene.
Motorcycles with four-stroke engines generally emit more pollutants than gasoline cars, but not much more, so it’s specifically two-stroke motorcycles that are particularly polluting.
In fact, a two-stroke motorcycle can emit just as many particulate matter (PM) emissions as one bus or truck powered by diesel.
As for hydrocarbons, they can emit the same as ten cars fueled by gasoline.
Compared to passenger cars, motorcycles, in general, emit 16 times more hydrocarbons. They also emit three times more carbon monoxide.
Interestingly, when comparing very old cars and motorcycles (models from the ’80s – ’00s), the old motorcycles did emit less CO2 than cars, but hugely more of all the other pollutants (416% more hydrocarbons, 3,220% more NOx and 8,065% carbon monoxide).
So it seems as though cars have made much bigger progress over the decades than motorcycles in terms of reducing their tail pipe emissions.
With that said, much of this research is more than a decade old, so newer cars and motorcycles are likely to be less polluting overall due to technological advancements.
However, the relative differences regarding pollution between cars and motorcycles more than likely persist.
3. Do Motorcycles Waste More Gas than Cars?
How fuel-efficient vehicles are depends on the age, size, brand, and model.
With that said, overall, motorcycles seem to be more fuel-efficient than cars.
Motorcycles require less fuel than cars since they have smaller engines.
Since gasoline is a fossil fuel, a reduced demand sounds promising.
Their higher fuel efficiency is in large part due to their lighter weight.
Most motorcycles can travel at least 40 miles (64 km) per gallon (3.7 liters).
Whereas for the 2019 model year, the average US car traveled only 24.9 miles (40 miles) per gallon as larger sport utility vehicles grew in popularity.
4. What about Electric Motorcycles?
Since the biggest environmental impact of a motorcycle is the emissions, electric motorcycles will be more sustainable.
Research found that energy consumption, CO2 emissions, and energy costs for electric motorcycles were lower than that of gasoline-powered motorcycles.
Keep in mind that while electric vehicles do not have tail-pipe emissions, they’re not emission-free.
As most energy use is still reliant on fossil fuels, electricity is still not exactly sustainable.
In 2019, the US national grid produced approximately 417g (14.7 oz) of CO2e per kWh.
So, while electric vehicles are greener than fossil-fueled ones, they are still an indirect source of pollution.
Apart from that, lithium mining and its subsequent processing into batteries also have their impact on our environmental.