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Guide to Organizing & Implementing
an International Recycling (Reusing) Bicycle Programs





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Redistributing bikes to people who will use them is a great idea and can be a win-win experience. But, bike distribution in Less Developed Countries (or communities) (LDC) can be good or bad depending upon how its done.

People aware of a surplus of bikes in there community may want to organize a shipment to a destination that can absorb them and make good use of them: Just as going to an affluent suburban mall and trying to hand out used bikes might be a misdirected effort, so sending bikes to an LDC can be misdirected.  If instead of going to an affluent mall, you create a bike programs and provided bikes for a social service agency in Europe or North America that works with disadvantaged youth, you will positively change some lives.  The same can occur in a LDC.

We generally advise against just dumping or giving away the bikes at their destinations. Recycling bikes is most successful, and most sustainable, when it is combined with a program the requires recipients to demonstrate a commitment by investing an appropriate amount of time and/or money to receive a bike.

Benefits of International Bicycle Recycling Programs

  • Helping poor, women, children, and HIV positive.
  • Empowering the people.
  • Giving people hope, a chance and self dignity.
  • Improving access to health care, educational and social services.
  • Developing micro-enterprises and employment opportunities.
  • Empowers woman by increasing their mobility.
  • Helping women to achieve their potential in their community.
  • Strengthening families and community by reducing travel time.
  • Improving the delivery of services by police, health care workers, and other extension workers by increasing their mobility.
  • To improving economic productivity by improving transportation.
  • Road safety education.
  • Improve self-sufficiency.
  • Creating sustainable communities.

Structuring An International Bicycle Recycling Program

Past experience shows that if the recipients have to pay for the bikes, even a nominal fee like US$5, $10 or $20 and /or make a time commitment like attending a maintenance class or other life-skills program, the bike will get to a more serious home; the recipients will tend to respect them more, ride them more, take care of them better and use them longer.  Charging a nominal fee also helps to generate a revolving fund that can be used to finance a future shipment, making the program more sustainable.  The shipment of bikes should also be done in conjunction with a training programs, so that the bicycles can be kept viable longer.  The bikes become an asset, instead of just a consumable.  (For example see Village Bicycle Project)  If there is a surplus in the revolving fund, the money can be used to buy tools to help subsidize someone getting into the bicycle repair business (employment generation.)

Key Points of a Recycle Bicycle Shipping:

  1. Find an overseas destination and a partner organization that is strongly committed to bicycle transport. Ideally the impetus for a shipment will have initially come from this organization. (see "point for success")
  2. Organize a local project committee and assign tasks.
  3. Find available (donated) warehouse space to store the bikes collected.
  4. Start a campaign to collect enough useable bikes, (400-500), bike tools, spare parts and accessories to fill a 40 ft high cube container. accessories.  Partnering with churches, civic organizations, service clubs, return Peace Corps Volunteer groups, bike clubs, schools and businesses can be helpful to round up more bikes.
  5. After you have about half the bikes start a campaign to raise the money for the shipping. A companion strategy is to ask everybody who is donating a bike to also donate a $10 or $5 "administrative fee".  (In the U.S., if you have non-profit status with the IRS, all of these donations are tax-deductible.)
  6. Get tools (15mm pedal wrenches, adjustable wrenches, metric hex wrench set, penetrating oil, wire cutters) and wire or wire-ties for the forthcoming work party.
  7. Have a work party  "process" / "prep" / "flatten" the bikes (a crew of 10-12 is usually good):
    a) remove the pedals and tie/wire them to the frame, so they stay with the bike,
    b) lower the seats,
    c) loose the handlebar stem,
    d) turn and lower the handlebars (leave the bolt a little loose so the loaders can make changes if they need to., 
    e) remove anything that sticks way out or up from the bike.
  8. Research where to get the best deal on a shipping container. Arrange to get a shipping container to the warehouse at a time you can get people there to help you load it.  It cost money to have possession of a shipping container so you want to be ready to load before is delivered.
  9. Usually, you need to prepare a custom declaration and shipping manifest to send along with the container.  Assign a designated person to categorize and count the large objects that go into the container (i.e. road bikes, mountain bikes, BMX bikes, kids bikes, frames, etc.)

Load the container with bikes

Loading a contain is both an art and a science -- a good sense of spatial relationship is a plus for the chief loader.  There is a learning curve so the more you do it the more bike you can get into a given space.  But, be mindful that the bike will eventually have to be unloaded as well. 

There are two main approaches to loading a container; vertical and horizontal:

Our experience has been that the horizontal loading technique is faster overall, has excellent numbers and is less back breaking when you get to the top of the stack.

Horizontal loading technique:

  1. Prepare the bikes (see #7 above),
  2. Sort the bikes by kind (often wheel size: 27"/700cm, 26", 24", 20", 16", 12")
  3. Starting on the back wall of the container, make a stack with bikes of a like kind and size.  Alternate the direction of front wheel. [We have found no significant advantage to removing the front wheel, which is a distinct disadvantage at the destination.]  It is usually efficient to have just a couple people assigned to and focusing on just this.
  4. As you stack the bikes a hole is created where the frames rest on top of each other.  Fill this cavity with parts and accessories as you go. Be cognizant to keep the infill low enough that it doesn't interfere with the next bike you will add to the top.  It is usually efficient to have a couple people assigned to and focusing on just this.
  5. When the first stack is 2/3 high it is often good to start a second stack parallel to it and build it 1/3 high to facilitate loading the top of the first stack. When the first stack is finished, the second stack is build to 2/3 and then a third stack is built to 1/3, to facilitate completing the second stack.  And the process repeats itself.  All the stacks are parallel to each other.
  6. Any space at the top of the stack can be used to pack medium size item like wheels, mini-size kids bikes, etc..
  7. The bikes only stretch about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way across the container.  This "alley" can be filled with odd or oversized bikes.  Often it is efficient to have a couple people assigned to and focusing on just loading the alley.  As the main stacks are completed start filling the alley next to them.  Often more of a vertical loading technique is used for the alley.
  8. Between the stacks and the alley cavities will be left.  These can be filled with whatever fits.

Vertical loading technique:

  1. Sort the bikes by kind.
  2. Place the first row of bike vertically across the back of the container, usually alternating the direction of the bike.  Try to have all the bikes in a given row as close to the same height as you can.  Because the height of a bike is partly determined by wheel size you can get a long way in archiving your height goal by calling for all road-bike for a row, or all mountain bike for a row, etc.. If the bikes are nested well you should be able to get at least eighteen or nineteen adult bicycles across.  Once the bikes are in place you can often get the "top" "more level" by pulling out the handlebar stem, which should have been loosened during the work party (see "step 7" above.)
  3. When this row is finished put another couple rows above it. 
  4. There should be space above the top row to lay a few bikes down and stuff it with wheels, parts and accessories, until they are packed to the ceiling. 
  5. It is sometimes easier to do a second row on the floor, interlacing the wheels with the previous rows and then temporarily cover it with heavy cardboard to make a platform for loading the bikes and parts to the ceiling over your first "column".  You can put spare parts and other items (if you have them: books, computers, sewing machines, office equipment, etc.) in the open spaces between the bikes.
  6. After you have first column stacked to the ceiling, start or continue with the second column, third column, etc., continue the procedures until you work your way out of the container. 

The bottom row can be a two person operation, but as you get to the upper rows it is best with three or four sets of hands.  The more the loaders understand the spatial relationship of how things fit the most tightly in the container, the more bikes (and value) you will be able to ship in one container.

The Final Count:

For purposes of completing the shipping manifest and customs declaration forms you need to count the bikes by category as they enter the container.  Typical categories are: road bikes (700c and 27"), mountain bikes (26" and 24"), BMX bikes (20"), and kids bikes (16" and 12").  How many bikes you can get in a 40' container depends upon the mix of adult bikes and kids bike. With adult bike, you should get 18 across and 3 levels high, then front to back there should be about eight rows. That math come out to 432. There is still space on top for more adult bikes, or a lot of kids bikes. The total can reach 500. Other variables are how many wheels and frames go in. If you pack well, you should be able to get a lot of tubes and parts tucked into the air space that is all over the place.

Key Points for Success of an International Recycle Cycle Program:

  1. Good contacts at the recipient end,
  2. Thorough knowledge of the culture and customs of the recipients.
  3. Strong local investment in the program by the recipient community.
  4. Well prepared and organized companion programs in bicycling, maintenance and repair, at the receiving end.

Have fun.

If you have ideas to add to this section please write us.

Return to: International Bicycle Recycling Homepage


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