A rusted Huffy pokes out of the junk heap, its color unrecognizable and its frame so twisted, one shudders wondering how it got that way. Yet its new owner touches it tenderly and smiles.
“We love broken bikes,” says Lee Ravenscroft, founder of Chicago-based Working Bikes Cooperative (WBC). He tosses the bashed two-wheeler in the back of his truck and takes it to headquarters, where his colleagues — all volunteers — will fix it and others like it (or at least salvage the parts). The WBC store sells about 40 percent of these bicycles and then uses the proceeds to ship the remaining bikes and parts to developing countries, where they become assets for communities in need. WBC now recycles 10,000 bikes annually; about half come from donation drives, and the rest come from the trash.
In Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America, WBC’s local partners are developing bike-powered water pumps and other machinery in electricity-poor communities, such as Guatemala (see below), and providing AIDS orphans with vocational training to fix bikes and modify them into cash-generating cargo carriers, as in Tanzania.
Ravenscroft isn’t the only one to realize recycled bicycles are powerful tools for change. Several other U.S. organizations — like Massachusetts-based Bikes Not Bombs, New Jersey–based Pedals for Progress, and Virginia-based Bikes for the World — also ship old bikes overseas. And many other nonprofits fix and sell used bikes domestically for youth-oriented Earn-a-Bike programs. The International Bicycle Fund (ibike.org) keeps a list of such groups, including those that collect secondhand bikes.
There is certainly no shortage of raw material for these groups, thanks to the glut of cheap, throwaway bicycles on the U.S. market these days — mainly Asian imports and models from big-box retailers. Ecophiles may argue that the most sustainable solution is to reduce the number of bikes made in the first place; whether or not that happens, recyclers will have the means to turn the developing world on to bike-powered technologies for many years to come.
Guatemala's extraordinary machines
Seeking your own set of wheels
Frame: “A bent frame means the bike is going to be an organ donor,” WBC’s Lee Ravenscroft says. Rippled or cracked paint, especially at the front where the frame meets the head tube (i.e., the part the handlebar passes through), indicates damage.
Rear wheel: Make sure the bike has one, then spin it to check for wobbling. “If it wobbles a little, you can tighten the spokes for about $10. But if it’s a big wobble you’ll have to replace the back wheel, which is expensive,” Ravenscroft says. Back wheels cost $40 and up. Front wheels are less expensive since they don’t have to fit around the bike’s chain like back wheels do.
Seat: The saddle, as it’s called in proper parlance, is relatively low-cost and easy to replace.
Fit: Sit on the bike, put the arch of your foot on the pedal, and move it to the six o’clock position. If your leg is straight (but not locked) at this point, the size is right. If not, try adjusting the seat and handlebars; a bike that’s an inherently bad fit still won’t feel right after these adjustments, so it’s better to just leave it for the next scavenger. Ambitious types who have scavenged an extra frame, stem, handlebar, fork, and wheels, in addition to their recycled bike, can build their own trailer. Follow the instructions at re-cycle.org/trailer to create a stylish carrier, capable of hauling 220 pounds.
Story by Karla Zimmerman. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in April 2009.