10 September 2018

Recycling Bicycles: For Them, It's Play

One day back in the mists of time (or, at least, before I met her), my friend Millie saw a cat on her way home from work.

She took that cat home.   By the time I met her, she had a few living in her yard and basement.  Also, she was going to an industrial area near her house to feed the strays--where she rescued a few more cats.

Among them were Max, my loving orange friend who died last year, and the second cat named Charlie I've had in my life.  Other people also have feline companions Millie found--sometimes on her own, other times as a volunteer with a local animal rescue organization.

(Marlee was also rescued from that same industrial area, but by some workers in a bakery who, in turn, gave her to one of Millie's friends who was, at that time, rescuing animals.)

So, what does that story have to do with a blog about bicycling?  Well, just as my friend Millie became a "cat lady" because a chance encounter with a stray, Michael and Benita Warns now oversee a bicycle rescue program, if you will, that started with a bicycle they salvaged from scrap. Or, more precisely, a chatty 6-year-old neighbor named Zeek asked whether Michael could fix a bike he found in the trash.

Fast-forward eleven years, and Mr. Michael Recycles Bicycles is, every year, giving away hundreds of bikes assembled from the 10 garages full of bikes and parts they have in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Michael and Benita Warns. Photo by James Walsh for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Benita, a retired postal employee, is the president of the organization.  Michael does the mechanical work. Both are mechanical engineers by training, so they were able not only to put bikes together, but also figure out ways to make them work better.

Their project really took off after they volunteered for their neighborhood clean-up.  When they saw how many bicycles ended up in trash heaps in their neighborhood, they figured--correctly--that lots of bicycles were also being discarded in other neighborhoods.  

The way their project differs from other recycle-a-bicycle programs is that anyone can get a bicycle from them.  There are no forms to fill out.  They don't ask about your income; if you call, they ask only your height, gender and what type of bicycle you want.  It really does seem magical.

The Warneses don't take a salary, and volunteers help them, there are still expenses.  As an example, even with all of the bikes and parts they have, they occasionally have to buy stuff.  As someone who's worked in a bike shop, I'm guessing that they often need tires and tubes, which are the most commonly unusable parts from old bikes.  

To help pay for their program, they run a small shop where they sell some of their bicycles, as well as parts and accessories.  They also do repairs for $20 an hour--a bargain in today's economy.

For all of the labor they put into this project, the Warneses always want to make one thing perfectly clear.

Benita:  "Nobody works in this place."

Michael:  "We play with bicycles."


  1. Discarded bicycles? Dumpsters are treasure troves. I maintain a fleet of old bikes and I am always on the lookout for old components I can use or modify. I have my eyes on a set of Sachs center pull brakes on a twisted wreck leaning up against a dumpster in back of the local super market. I will attack it after hours today. My winter bike, for snow and ice, is a Frankenbike put together from about seven or eight dumpster finds, with parts varying in age from 10 to 60 years. It is a no-nonsense machine, believe me.

    This habit of looking into dumpsters gets on my son's nerves when I see him and we are out walking together. I think he choses routes to avoid dumpsters. Maybe he has to maintain the dignity of the large international corporation he works for?

  2. Leo--I have come to believe that anyone who tries to maintain the dignity of a large international corporation is trying to uphold an illusion. But that's just me.

    It's amazing what people throw away, isn't it?

  3. I recall Anais Nin saying in her dairies from NY in the 40's that she was poor and did all her shopping for clothes at the Goodwill and The Salvation Army, so she was always dressed in silks, satins and lace.

    My last sentence in the above post was very much tongue in cheek.

  4. Leo--I remember reading something like that in Anais Nin's diaries.

    I still maintain that "the dignity of a large international corporation" is an illusion.