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Bicycle Recycling Program

     by Geoff Thomas

Thinking globally while trash-picking locally!

Do you follow the environmental motto of “reduce, reuse, recycle”? Would you also like to help someone in Sierra Leone, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Uganda, Ghana, or Moldova experience that thrill of personal freedom that your first bike gave you? It’s easy. Just recycle bicycles.


One of the great things about bicycling through upscale neighborhoods is the amazing treasures you find in the trash. Some people have more money than time, so it seems perfectly reasonable to them to put expensive, usable items out with the trash. Over the past few years, we have diverted several nice pieces of furniture, a perfectly usable set of bicycle rollers, and a rowing ergometer from the landfill. We have also saved many, many bikes.

There are many different reasons why perfectly serviceable bikes end up at the curb. Maybe the bike needed a small adjustment or a flat repair, or maybe it got displaced by a new bike. Maybe its rider grew up and moved away. What does not vary is the fact that one person's trash remains another's treasure.

To reduce the number of bicycles going to landfills, I rescue them from the trash. After about six months, the rescued bicycles really start to clutter up my garage. Once I have about four to six of them (a carload), I donate them to a worthy charity called Pedals for Progress.quiet zone

Pedals for Progress teams up with local volunteer groups who are trained to arrange and publicize and staff a collection day, partially disassemble the bikes for shipping (remove pedals and turn handlebars), and provide transport back to their home location in High Bridge, New Jersey. There, the people at Pedals for Progress evaluate the bicycle and fix minor problems. The bikes are cleaned up and lubed, and reshod with new tubes and tires as needed. Some of them are converted to a single speed. Then the bikes are held for the next ocean container shipment. To date, Pedals for Progress has shipped over 117,892 bikes to 32 countries.

The container of bicycles is then shipped to a local receiver organization, who reassembles them and may modify them further, as needed. They are then resold into the local market, which may only have had access to prohibitively expensive new imported bicycles.
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Do you remember how liberating your bicycle was to you as a kid? In many areas of the world, a simple bicycle provides that kind of liberation to adults, as well. Suddenly, the person who could previously travel only on foot can find work in neighboring villages and towns, start a small business, or travel to see family or friends in areas where no public transit exists. In short, that bicycle can transform a person's life.

Over the past few years, I've collected quite a menagerie of makes and styles. Sometimes, there seems to be a theme to a particular collection. I called my most recent donation "A Salute to American Bicycles": with a Columbia from Massachusetts, the ever-present Schwinns from Illinois, and a nice 24-inch girl's Ross from Allentown, Pennsylvania. I don't know where the Sears brand bike was made, but it did say "Made in USA." The only foreign-made bikes in the group were a Mongoose( see photo) that looked brand-new except for an out-of-true rear wheel and a vintage Fuji. Sometimes, you can trace the date a bike was sold by the bike shop stickers. Some bikes have stickers showing what college its owner attended. Oh, the tales these bikes tell. Sometimes they reveal that your local bike shops once sold all sorts of brands that you never knew they carried. It's also fun to see the evolution of bikes, from antique 3-speed Sturmey-Archer hubs to occasionally very current Shimano gear. (I'm still hoping to rescue something equipped with Campagnolo!). You can also see how bikes have gotten lighter and more durable.

The most common curbside find is usually a  5 to 20-year-old road bike, typically with a thick coating of garage dust, two flat tires, and a very rusty chain. But then, there was also a nice older Trek mountain bike that needed only a new tube, or the Dutch ladies' multispeed city bike complete with fenders, internal drum brakes and generators. Judging from its size, Dutch Ladies must be mighty tall!  Kid's bikes and now BMX bikes are increasingly common too.

What Does Pedals for Progress Want?

Pedals for Progress wants nearly all bicycles. According to David Schweidenback, President of Pedals for Progress, "No bicycle is too good to ship overseas." He notes that bicycle racing has taken off in the developing world, and as a result demand is rising for the high-end bicycles. Better quality bikes sell for higher prices in the destination countries, which helps to pay the shipping bills. Pedals for Progress ships higher end racing bikes regularly…and I learned from David that" For years, the national champion of Nicaragua rode a recycled Cannondale!" While Pedals for Progress can use just about any sort of bicycle, the best find is a sturdy adult-sized mountain bike. The frames are strong, and the fat tires are well suited to poorly paved roads and rural paths. Pedals for Progress prefers "men's" bikes since as David says:  "The bar that differentiates a man's from a woman's bike is a (potential) seat. These bicycles become the family vehicle. Every possible seat is needed." Do not think a kid's bike is not desirable abroad—bikes with 20 or 24 inch wheels are viewed as full size and BMX bikes are especially sought.

The bottom line is this. Whenever I see a bike put out for the trash, I look it over. If it is durable and fixable, I sling it into the car. If I see a good bike in the trash while I'm walking the dog, I'll walk the bike  and the dog home together. That bike then joins the herd in my garage until the next collection day.

For further information and details, please visit Pedals for Progress at www.p4p.org While donations of bicycles or money are tax-deductible, bike donors must pay a minimum $10 fee per bike to offset handling costs, which average $35 per bicycle. If you can't find a collection site close to you, consider holding a drive of your own. It's a nice Eagle Scout project or town ‘greenfair/environmental day project or an Earth Day activity for a bike club!

Geoff Thomas is an avid cyclist and recycler in the process of relocating to Vermont.. He writes for American Bicyclist- Journal of the League of American Bicyclists. This article is used by permission

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