Tools for Life:
A Start-Up Guide for Youth Recycling & Bicycling Programs
Where They Are
If you're on the verge of creating a project, there's probably one
fear keeping you up at night: Where do I get all those free bicycles? In
reality, this may be the smallest of your worries. It will not take long
to discover that there is a vast abundance of bicycles. There are more
of them in this country than cars. Most, sad to say, are not used very
much. They may have been outgrown, replaced by spiffier models, or
damaged beyond the willingness of an owner to pay a repair bill. Or
perhaps the owner just didn't like cycling as much as he thought he
For whatever reason, hundreds of bicycles in your community are at
this very moment languishing in alleys, basements, hallways, attics, and
garages. The pure and simple truth is that people would rather give
their bike a home than throw it out. Your project should capitalize on
To organize a bike collection you must draw upon your community
alliances. Put announcements in newsletters of local organizations and
on radio stations, place a story in a newspaper, ask a business to
sponsor an employee or community bike collection, and make presentations
to interested groups such as civic organizations, cycling clubs, or
Bike shops often have abandoned bikes in their storage area. For a
tax deduction, shop owners may be willing, even delighted, to donate
them to the project. The St. Louis Bicycleworks successfully organized a
bicycle trade-in program with a sympathetic shop. Customers were offered
a discount on the purchase of a new bike if they donated an old one to
the youth project.
Other sources of bikes are local police departments, college
campuses, and landfill sites. In some areas, a dedicated group of
nocturnal scavengers can simply scour the area on garbage night.
What You'll Get
As we've pointed out, acquiring bikes rarely poses a problem. The
challenge comes in trying to deal with the sheer number of donations.
However, you don't have to take everything. You can afford to be
selective and set standards for acceptance. For example, your group may
only accept bikes that are in working condition, or only bikes that have
a complete set of wheels. Match your collections to your project goals.
If your project will deal exclusively with children's bikes, then
perhaps that should be the only kind you'll take.
In our own project, all bicycles are accepted. That means we get a
lot of junk, but we deal with it. Approximately one fifth of donated
bicycles are irreparable and get stripped for parts. Even the worst
cases have a re-usable cable clip or binder bolt dangling from their
Bicycles are as prone to changes in fashion as anything else in our
fast-moving society. In the 1970's, everyone had to have drop-style
handlebars, whether they wanted them or not. In the 1990's, the mountain
bike reigns supreme in the adult market. For the last 15 years, cycling
magazines have ceaselessly fueled the fat-tire frenzy. Each year brings
us a fresh crop of "innovations" that the with-it rider must
have. We've been bombarded with shock forks, exotic materials, and ever-
expanding freewheels (a 24-gear set-up is now common). Meanwhile, the
time is ripe for bicycle recyclers. Millions of perfectly good 10 and 12
speed road bikes have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Put the
word out that you're looking for old bikes and you'll be inundated with
Unfortunately, when the time comes for kids and customers to pick
bikes, they will tend to pass these old racehorses over for the few
mountain bikes that dribble in. One way to deal with this is to order a
good supply of straight handlebars and upright brake levers and turn a
few of those road bikes into "hybrids." You can even add
thumb-shifters, if you like. These upgrades will raise costs, but your
final product will be much more popular. The lighter wheels of a
converted road bike make it a superior choice for anyone who doesn't
spend their time bombing down dirt trails.
Ten years ago, used mountain bikes were hard to come by. As time goes
by, however, more and more mountain bikes are being scrapped. Take any
of these you can get because, as noted above, they are the flavor of the
decade. Placing recycled mountain bikes is considerably easier than with
any other style.
You're going to be working with children, so it makes sense to
acquire plenty of children's bikes. Single-speed and coaster brake
designs make most kid's bikes easier to fix than their adult
counterparts. They also tend to be out-grown rather than worn out, which
ensures a steady supply of donations. Best of all, they have a built-in
appeal to your kids. This comes in very handy if you're planning an
Earn-A-Bike component for your program.
Kid's bikes come in as many levels of quality as adult bikes. At this
writing, GT brand freestyle models are considered by our kids to be the
Expensive bikes get a lot of attention, but the biggest segment of
the market is occupied by the cheapest product: the department store
bicycle. The vast majority of bikes are sold by mass-market retailers at
a price between $75 and $150. The limited sizes, spot-welded frames, and
stamped-steel components of these cheap bikes attest to a lower level of
quality that matches the price. Huffy, Murray, and others crank out 10-
speed, mountain, and kid versions of budget bikes by the million. You'll
get a lot more of these than you want. They can be made ridable, but the
process is never quite as rewarding as with models that meet the
standards of true bicycle retailers. If you're frustrated by a surplus
of budget bikes, consider refusing to take them or charge a recycling
fee to the donors.
How to Get 'Em
Although RAB accepts all donations, we don't go too far out of our
way to pick them up, mainly because we don't have a van! The cost and
impracticality of maintaining a vehicle in Manhattan ruled it out
immediately. We don't really mind because, after all, we are an
There have been times when we couldn't do without a truck. REI, the
sporting goods retailer, arranged a massive collection of bicycles for
us in New Rochelle, about 50 miles from the city. To pick up the 80-odd
bikes, we had to rent a large truck. It was well worth it, though, for
suburban cycles tend to be in better condition than their city cousins
On other occasions, we've moved old bikes with TA's cargo bicycles.
Barring special circumstances, we'd suggest that you avoid getting
involved in the transport of bikes unless you are equipped with a truck
or van, a driver, and a budget for transport. It is difficult to
coordinate individual pick-ups, especially if you are relying on
volunteers, and you'll be busy enough as it is. Donors with one or two
bikes will usually be more than willing to drop them off at your site.
For their sake, it's a good idea to advertise (and commit to) fixed
drop-off locations and times. Building a weekend workshop day into your
project's schedule will make it easy for the working public to bring
their bikes to you.
At I.S. 218, the tale is still told of the elderly man who walked
into the workshop one Saturday afternoon pushing an unridable old
bicycle. Out of curiosity, someone asked him how far he'd come. He said
he had started in Jersey City, walked along the Hudson River, and
crossed the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. A hush fell over
the room. Kids and adults alike were in awe. The old man had walked 12
miles to donate a bicycle.
If you choose to pick up bikes from individuals, you might follow the
lead of Pedals for Progress, a New Jersey-based group that ships bikes
to Third World nations. PfP organizes collection drives on week- ends
and charges a $5 fee per donated bike to cover the cost of transport.
Where They Go
Let's say your project is in full swing and you're churning out two
dozen bicycles a month. What do you do with your finished product?
Roughly 25% of our finished bikes go to the kids who work on them in
the Earn-A-Bike program. Teen and adult volunteers, too, have the option
of earning bicycles in exchange for their help.
RAB also donates bikes to other non-profit organizations, a pro- gram
that began with our partner organization. In the first year of our
operation we created a fleet of bicycles for a summer day camp program
run by the Children's Aid Society in Chappaqua, NY. Since then, we've
donated bikes to Outward Bound, the National Gateway Park Service,
Harlem Hospital Pediatrics Center, and the Urban Youth Bicycle Project
There is a special dividend garnered through these donations: a
genuine involvement by our students in community service. When a drive
is on, all the kids who work in the shop are aware of it. A herd of
bicycles destined for the chosen organization begins to grow in a corner
of the shop, and everyone contributes to it. This process reached its
most meaningful height when Pedals for Progress asked RAB to fill a
container with used bikes and ship it to the Dominican Republic, the
homeland of most of our kids.
What else can you do with recycled bikes? Well, you can sell them
We'll deal with bike sales in The Budget.
Reuse and Recycling
The essence of RAB is reuse and recycling. Both practices are
employed equally in the project. The most glamorous of these efforts is
the repair and distribution of bicycles. However, as noted previously,
many bikes aren't worthy of repair. These are stripped of parts, which
are very valuable and help to minimize orders of supplies. The remaining
frame is then turned into a sitting-stool or hauled off to the local
scrap dealer along with all the other discarded metal. Steel does not
fetch a high price if any at all, but your bent and dented alloy rims
are worth something.
Tubes and tires are items that accumulate quickly. RAB collects tubes
in massive numbers from local bike shops. The majority are salvageable
and kept on hand in the RAB shops. To support the TA-sponsored NYC
Century ride, kids patched a hundred to have on hand at the rest stops.
The unsalvageable tubes are transformed into a variety of items such as
bungle cords, handlebar covering, and lawn chair seats. Tires are more
problematic. Check with the local sanitation department for the address
of a company that recycles tires. The only uses for worn tires that
we've discovered are as elements in an obstacle course and raw material
for artists and sculptors.
One of the more interesting experiments we did with veteran RAB
students was to develop a curriculum on industrial design. We dedicated
8 hours of class time to create useful items from the junk generated at
the bike shop. Among the class projects were designs for a clock, a
candle holder, jewelry, and a game of skill. Kids view challenges like
this as fun.