We live in a world of infinite possibilities, abundant resources and endless trails, or so we believe. Meet the businesses in the bike industry who are catching onto the idea that, to keep producing affordable bikes, we might have to look at our assets a bit differently.
At a gathering at the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland (MTBCoS) at Glentress forest, Scottish Borders, a group of forward thinking business people came together to talk about the future of the cycling industry and importantly, how to keep that future affordable for consumers and producers. Their aim is both to aid the economy and their business growth while also allowing us all to reap the additional environmental benefits.
If we think of dwindling natural resources we naturally think of oil but, did you know that, at current consumption rates there are only around 35 years of gold reserves left worldwide? OK, so you haven’t got a gold bike but it gives a stark illustration of what’s left underground, and you know what happens when things get scarce, they get expensive! Resources are not infinite so it makes sense that we think about how we can reuse products, recycle materials and remanufacture assets so that we can keep having shiny new things in the future after all the aluminium has been dug up.
Isla Rowntree, founder of kids bike company, Islabikes, has famously launched the ‘Imagine Project’ to get kids bikes working within a closed-loop economy, renting rather than selling bikes and reusing that bike many times. They want to step away from a ‘linear’ model, one that uses a ‘take, make, dispose’ supply line and do something a little more innovative. Isla took a moment to explain her motivation behind the project and it may surprise you. “With consistently growing wage costs in South East Asia, where a lot of bikes are being manufactured, in the not too distant future it will be more cost effective to manufacture bikes in the UK. Add onto this the growing costs of raw materials and the cost of bikes is going to grow and the social costs of that are massive.”
According to Isla, this won’t happen next year or the year after, but a business who wants to keep their product affordable for everyone needs to take heed and start to plan before such a scenario knocks on the door.
So, the answer for Islabikes is to stop selling bikes and start renting them out, after 18 months of ‘ownership’ the cyclist returns the bike and gets a new one in the right size, simple. But don’t imagine that any old bike will cut the mustard, a consumer with a 3rd (or 10th) hand bike needs to know that the frame and components are safe and as good as new. With Islabikes aim of reaching a 50 year lifespan for the frames, everyone needs to have confidence in every single weld and bearing. The bikes will use hub gears and brakes, enclosed in their own sealed units, frames are steel to make them as hardy as possible and everything is sourced from within the UK to limit transport costs and fuel consumption.
The UK, as a whole, have forgotten how to make bikes, yes, we know you can get a beautiful bespoke frame from your local hipster manufacturer but Asia have a lot to teach us about large scale production. This means that finding manufacturers that make the right components can be tricky but, Islabikes are working on it one component at a time. The pedals will be made from corn waste and the saddle and grips are by famous British brand Brooks.
Other notable companies, like Hope Tech, are looking into this market, and with Hope Academy now in full swing it’s one that looks like it has room to grow. Hope are in the lucky situation that they fabricate all their components in the UK, so are well placed to run a kids rental program. Both companies have been flooded with interest since launching the schemes so it’s an exciting concept to keep our eyes on.
As well as an abundance of practical issues that need to be overcome, an ‘end plan’ for each frame needs to be developed. Just chucking the old frames into the skip at the end of its life goes against the grain of the plan, so everything needs to be planned. How can those precious materials be reused at the end of life and how we can reclaim those in a cost effective manner? Each component of the bike is designed to be separated and reused, recycled or remanufactured for the next generation and the one after that.
Remanufacture and reusing items is being explored in other facets of the cycling world with other businesses looking at how they can reclaim valuable resources before they hit landfill. A Scottish business, Recyclatech, are working with used tyres to bring the rubber product back into a useable product. Have you ever pondered what you could do with the pile of old 26” tyres lying in your shed? Recyclatech want to take them and create new products at a fraction of the cost of sourcing new rubber. With an estimated 2.12 billion tons of waste going to landfill every year, and much of that being valuable resources, reusing some of it can’t be anything but a good idea.
Bike companies wanting to remanufacture products have a long way to go, not only with the practicalities of the schemes but with consumer mentality. We are hardwired to prefer new products, a new bike out of the box will always be more exciting than a second hand frame and when a bike has seen 15 users before you, you might need some additional reassurances and encouragement to take that step.
Until now we have the perception that recycled products are a little substandard but, we might find that impression challenged over the coming years as recycling and reuse becomes more commonplace.
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Words & Photos: Catherine Smith