By Joel Zanatta
The Cycling Lawyer

Have you ever thought about what happens to a bike, after you’re done with it? The grim reality is that most of the bikes we ride eventually end up as garbage. It’s estimated at least 15 million bikes go to landfill every year, destined for a slow death in a dump heap.

Bike waste is a significant global problem. Which is why I have incredible respect for those who are not just saving bikes from landfill, but also fixing them up and finding them new homes.

Bikes Without Borders in Toronto was founded by Mike Brcic and his wife Tanya Smith in 2008, on the belief that “bicycles can change the world”.

The original goal was to refurbish bikes and bring them to people in need in developing countries. But transporting bikes internationally, to sometimes very remote and inaccessible areas, proved to be extremely expensive.

“We realized on a super-slim budget, it was more effective to work at the local level,” says Tanya, Executive Director of Bikes Without Borders. “At the same time, there was a huge influx of newcomers to Canada due to the Syrian refugee crisis.”

Soon Bike Without Borders changed its focus and started outfitting newly arrived refugees and low-income families with refurbished bikes.

They’re also partnering with a bike share program, to accommodate newcomers in high rise apartments who may not have a safe place to store a bike.

They get all their bikes through donation, and everyone involved in fixing them up volunteers their time. This year, their goal is to put 1000 bikes into the hands of those in need of two-wheel transportation.

I love what Bikes Without Borders is doing, as well as what many other organizations are accomplishing across the country. Groups like Bike Root in Calgary, The Bike Dump in Winnipeg, and Recycle in North Bay, all working to keep bikes out of landfill, and connect people in need with bike parts and refurbished rides.

In Vancouver, The Bike Kitchen on the University of British Columbia campus has been connecting people with two-wheeled transportation for more than twenty years. As a full-service, non-profit bike shop, it sells upcycled bikes and used parts. But its core mission is to teach people how to become their own bike mechanic, hopefully extending the life of their ride.

Normally it runs training programs on bike maintenance and repair and has its own well stocked tool lending library. However, due to the pandemic, they’ve had to cancel their programs, and close the tool share. So for now, they’re only operating the service shop.

“Not being able to provide our core service, it’s important for us to be able to provide whatever people need,” says Sunny Nestler, Programs Manager at The Bike Kitchen.

And what people seem to need are refurbished bikes and lots of repairs.

Since COVID, The Bike Kitchen is busier than ever, with all profits going to bike co-op programming and cycling outreach on campus.

And in keeping with the “diverting bikes from landfill philosophy”, if you ever decide you’re done with your bike, you can sell it right back to The Bike Kitchen for half what you paid for it.

“The bike is just a tool for a different way to be in the world,’ says Sunny.

Bikes can also be a powerful tool for change. And it’s that purpose that keeps most of these organizations going. Remember, most of these groups aren’t benefitting from big corporate donations. They don’t have a fleet of employees on staff. The fact is they’re mostly run by a dedicated, core group of volunteers on a shoe-string budget.

Tanya from Bikes Without Borders has a hand in everything, from fundraising to public relations to securing donations and even finding places to store them. With a graduate degree in Theatre Arts and three young children at home, before she met her husband she never would have predicted she’d be running an organization like this. But seeing the impact their bikes have on the community, inspires her every day.

“There is a guy named Raj, he had newly arrived in Canada and came to us through the Salvation Army. I remember he called us from a pay phone! Now he’s a bike courier and I see him all the time, biking around my neighbourhood. It is so heart-warming, he used to be sleeping on a cot and the Salvation Army, but now he has a job, and a place to live. I’ve seen the amazing impact bikes can have.”

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