Recycling and Upcycling Helmets and Bicycles
By Gracie Cohen and Bicycle Paper staff
Think about this. What do we do with our bike helmet once it’s worn out, out of style or damaged? We could just throw it out, but we don’t. It could be donated for someone else to wear, but if it is damaged, we can’t really do that. Some keep them around in case an out of town friend needs to borrow one for a casual ride during their visit. Although rarely seen, they could be repurposed as decorative herb planters, but in reality, for most of us that old helmet turns into a dust collector as it sits on a shelf in the garage or the backyard shed.
Oregon resident, Jason Jepsen, has other plans for citizens of the greater Portland area. He wants to efficiently break them down and recycle each component. His endeavor to initiate large-scale helmet recycling began in the fall of 2011 through Portland State University’s graduate class, “Green Economics and Sustainable Development.” The course proposed to find and challenge a sustainable issue within the region. It was there that he saw, with helmets, an opportunity to take action.
Last November, Jepsen reached out to the Community Cycling Center (CCC), a non-profit bicycle shop offering hands-on programs and volunteer opportunities to Portland area residents. His idea is to work in partnership with CCC, as he aims to interconnect the city and its many cyclists by integrating a helmet recycling pilot program through the center, which already recycles aluminum and steel.
He is hopeful that he will acquire the support required to bring it all together, as he explains the potential plan of action. It begins with local bike shops collecting around 50 to 100 discarded helmets over the course of a year. Those would then be transported to CCC facilities where volunteers would disassemble them and sort the materials into three groups: foam, buckles and straps, and plastic outer shells. Once separated, these materials would be distributed to participating Portland recycling centers, which would help continue the process.
The foam would go to Total Reclaim, a major electronics recycler, about which Jepsen comments, “Foam is very tricky to recycle; [Total Reclaim] requires it to be clean. CCC volunteers would have to remove any stickers before sending it over there. The company would then grind and densify the material into a brick, and ultimately sell it to China where it is integrated into other products.”
School and Community Reuse Action Project (SCRAP), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting creative sustainability through educational programs, as well as providing affordable crafting materials to the community, would receive the buckles and straps.
The helmets’ sorted outer-shells would be directed to Far West Fibers, who accepts a variety of plastics ranging from shopping bags and film to an assortment of media materials such as DVDs, CDs, jewel cases, and other rigid plastics. The company would compress them and then send it to various manufacturing companies who are buying bulk plastic at the time.
Jepson emphasizes that this process is completely tentative at the moment. As he is fine-tuning the material requirements in order for recyclers to accept his proposition, he is also currently firming up the budget in order to approach potential sponsors who could supply the funds needed to cover the operational costs. When asked about the future of this effort, Jepson responds, “I’m really looking forward to engaging with helmet manufacturers, who will hopefully see the importance of the helmet’s life cycle and support such an initiative.”
While Jepson is still in the planning and early execution phases of his project, others across the Northwest are doing something similar. Seattle’s Bike Works, for example currently partners with local recycling management group, CleanScapes, who uses three of its transfer recycling stations — located in Fremont, South Park, and Shoreline — to collect complete bikes or frames, miscellaneous parts, and other accessories and gear. These items are then taken to Bike Works where volunteers of all ages sort through it all to either reuse or repair what is salvageable. The recycled goods not only support youth programs at the community shop, but also aid two organizations that redistribute bicycles to Africa.
Many other organizations across the region have bicycle-recycling programs and either redistribute them throughout their communities or ship them to other countries in need of wheels for transportation such as World Bicycle Relief, an organization created by SRAM after the devastating tsunamis of 2005, or the Village Bicycle Project headquartered in Boise, Idaho, which supplies bikes, parts, tools and training to people in Africa. Many bike shops are aware of local groups that have similar aspirations and can usually direct their customers to the appropriate entities.
Following the green movement, the life of bicycles and its accessories can also be extended through other means. Turning various parts into “upcycled” art, numerous designers create goods by converting bits and pieces that would otherwise be thrown away. This concept helps to reduce energy-usage, air pollution, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. A longtime staple of this conversion from old to new is bike jewelry, where the artists use things like spoke nipples and chain links to make items such as bracelets, necklaces, earrings and cuff links, to name a few. Inner tubes find a second life when they are converted into belts, bags and pouches, wallets, book covers, jewelry, bracelets, chairs and benches meshed fabric, and more. Cogs work nicely as cardholders, while forks can be converted into unique lamps. Rims and other parts can be combined to create wall clocks of all kinds, while hubs make for nice salt and pepper shakers, and usually double as conversation pieces.
In today’s world the concept of reduce, reuse, recycle is well promoted and an initiative such as Jepson’s program, once implemented on a large scale, should significantly reduce the amount of helmets sent to the landfill. Thanks to the work of several community organizations that lengthen the lifespan of bicycles and their numerous parts, many will gain autonomy and improve their well-being. As for the artists, there is no limit to their imagination.