You’ve probably seen the pictures from China of huge lots filled with massive piles of abandoned dockless bikes. (If not, check this out.)
There are just So. Many. Bikes.
It killed me watching all those perfectly good bikes slowly melt into the Earth. There has to be a way to recycle them, me circa-two-weeks-ago thought.
So I looked into it. And let me tell you, it is hard – if not impossible. Here’s why.
Why are so many bikes abandoned?
First I called the Guangzhou, China office of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to find out how so many bikes wound up abandoned in the first place.
“When people park the bikes so they’re blocking sidewalks or roads, the government seizes them,” Deng Han, a senior transportation planner, told me. “And instead of spending time and money trying to get the bikes back, the dockless bikeshare companies just build new ones.”
So this cycle – seize the bikes, build new ones – contributes to the massive oversupply. ITDP’s latest estimate is that there are over 23 million dockless bikes in the country.
Oversupplying bikes is a key component of companies’ business strategies, Deng said. Although none of the major companies have turned a profit, they want to flood the streets with bikes to increase demand.
“If we want to make profits, we can make it now,” said Mobike founder and president Hu Weiwei at the World Economic Forum. “But it is not our purpose for the moment. We want to expand the market.”
But some dockless bikeshare companies are bankrupt.
Bluegogo, one of the largest dockless companies, shuttered in November. A high court in Beijing mandated the company to repay lost deposits to customers (averaging $30 per customer, Deng told me) but Bluegogo hasn’t done so yet. So how can companies reclaim their bikes if they can’t even repay customers’ deposits?
What makes these bikes difficult to recycle?
Next, I called Bikes for the World, a non-profit based in Rockville that sends recycled bikes to partner organizations in Sierra Leone, Ghana, the Philippines, and other countries. I wanted to find out if anybody would even want the bikes.
Taylor Jones, the organization’s executive director, told me that it was more complicated than that: recycled dockless bikes – which are built for cities – might not work in different parts of the world.
“The vast majority of places where we send bikes are rural, or cities where paved roads are the exception,” Jones said. “People want knobby bike tires.”
But dockless bikes would be difficult to recycle in developed countries and regions, too.
Dockless bikes are built with proprietary parts, making replacements and repairs by an independent mechanic all but impossible. This means that even minor wear and tear can render a former dockless bike unusable.
These bikes also use airless tires, which are difficult to replace almost everywhere in the world. And cutting the GPS technology and dockless locks off the bikes would be expensive, according to Deng.
Another challenge? Shipping out of China might be much more expensive than shipping to China. “When we ship bikes to the Philippines, it’s relatively cheap because shipping containers tend to be empty en route from the United States to East Asia,” said Jones. “It might be more expensive the other way around.”
So what can be done?
With all of this in mind, it feels like recycling the abandoned bikes is impossible. But there’s a little bit of hope.
Ofo, one of the largest dockless companies, frequently donates bikes, according to a company spokesman. In January, they sent 600 bikes to Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria wrecked the island’s infrastructure. In March, they sent 100 bikes to a homeless shelter in Austin.
Deng thinks getting companies to recycle their bikes is the best bet. “They know best how to repair and fix their bikes,” Deng said. And, he added, they can recycle them within China, lowering costs.
But in the short term? The abandoned bikes will probably stay abandoned.
Photo by Slices of Light.