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A volunteer stacks the bikes into a pile at the back of a huge shipping container. Photo: Karen Kelly
A volunteer stacks the bikes into a pile at the back of a huge shipping container. Photo: Karen Kelly

Bike shop in a box

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So many of us have an old bike collecting dust in the garage. More often than not, they end up in the garbage. But, as Karen Kelly reports, one group has found a unique way to recycle them.

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Transcript:

Karen Kelly
July 13, 2009

So many of us have an old bike collecting dust in the garage. More often than not, they end up in the garbage. But, as Karen Kelly reports, one group has found a unique way to recycle them:

(sound of banging)

"That's a sweet ride!"

A volunteer drops a bike into a pile at the back of a huge shipping container in Ottawa, Canada. The bikes are stacked one on top of the other.

(sound of tools)

Just outside, a mechanic is stripping the bikes down to make them as compact as possible.

"If it has a kickstand, we have to remove it. We take the pedals off and turn the handlebars."

In a few hours, this cargo container will be jammed with hundreds of donated bicycles, bike parts, and backpacks.

The gear is collected by a group called Bicycles for Humanity. They have 20 chapters, most of them in North America.

Each chapter raises a couple of thousand dollars to buy a shipping container. They pack it full of donated gear, and send it off to a community in Namibia, Africa. The shipping cost - another several thousand dollars - is also raised by the group.

A volunteer group there turns the container itself into a locally-run bike shop that provides jobs and transportation.

Some of the bikes are donated to health care workers who use them to pull patients on a stretcher.

Others are piled high with stacks of food and household items that defy gravity.

Martin Sullivan points to some of the pictures on display.

"These are the bakers who are able to sell their bread. And also wood, you can stack wood. It's just amazing what they do, how they make use of these bikes that we take for granted. We throw them out, and they can do so much with them."

(sound of traffic)

In Namibia, cars - and even bicycles - are scarce. Sullivan says these bikes make life easier for people who are used to walking miles to get to school, work, or to find the basic necessities.

Seb Oran is the co-founder of Bicycles for Humanity in Ottawa.

This is the fourth container of bikes that she's sent to Africa. Each one supports a local community group. Sometimes its a hospital, sometimes an orphanage, sometimes a women's empowerment group. She remembers one run by former prostitutes.

"Six of them became bicycle mechanics now. And now, they don't have to sell their bodies to put food on their plate."

But there are some challenges.

Michael Linke runs the Bicycle Empowerment Network. He helps the Nambians set up the bicycle shops.

"Because this is the first time a lot of these people have had formal ongoing work, it's often difficult to get people to understand a long-term ongoing business."

But with some mentoring, they've been able to make it work. There are now 13 successful projects, with more containers filled with bikes on the way.

The group estimates that these bikes will last another 20 or 30 years in Africa. They might be junk to us, but in Namibia, they're a precious resource.

For The Environment Report, I'm Karen Kelly.

2009 Environment Report

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