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The Business Of Reuse: How A Chapel Hill Co-op Is Getting People Back On Bikes

Giselle John of Cary has not had a bike in more than a decade, but that is not going to stop her.  For this weekend's activity, John's online Meetup group chose the ReCYCLEry in Chapel Hill. She decides to get her hands dirty bringing a slightly rusty old mountain back back into working order.

"I'm gonna ride it. I might need double helmets and lots of padding," John said.  "I don't even know if I have the balance yet. I'll try it. See what happens."

She gets help from Rich Giorgi to change the gear cables before she moves onto the brake pads. Giorgi moves on to help one of the other two dozen people tinkering on bikes in the garage. The number of people working on the both old and newer bikes exceeds the garage's number as they spill out into the small gravel parking lot. Giorgi co-founded the ReCYCLEry back in 2000.

A picture of Rich Giorgi in the shop.
Credit Carol Jackson / WUNC
Rich Giorgi is a founder of the volunteer-run ReCYCLEry in Chapel Hill

"One of the things the ReCYCLEry has always aimed to do is eliminate any kind of economic barrier to owning that better bicycle, to owning any bicycle at," Giorgi said. "From the start we decided we were going to have no membership fees, no charge for parts, labor. We did that to eliminate any air of exclusivity that could be perceived with owning a bicycle."

The fenced-in lot behind the shop is part showroom and part graveyard. More than 50 donated bicycles in various states of disrepair are packed into tight rows. Some are high-quality bikes with sturdy, lightweight frames. Most are lower quality bikes you would usually see at a department store that have been picked over for scraps: seats, pedals and tires.

"So I'd say about 30 percent of what we get is stripped for parts to build up the other 70 percent. And the other 70 percent, probably half of those have the parts that they already need on them," Giorgi said.

A picture of bike tires and tubes.
Credit Carol Jackson / WUNC
Tires and tubes are collected to replace flats. Damaged ones are sent to a rubber recycler.

Everything at the ReCYCLEry is fair game for anyone willing to do the work on their own bike, or to volunteer helping others.

James Lyons, 13, often volunteers to help newbies replace gear gables and install seats. But today he is waiting for help on a specialized mountain bike he snagged from the lot.

"I'm trying to change the brake pads. I've never changed brake pads with a hydraulic disc brake system before. The whole thing is small and complicated," Lyons said.

"I'm not quite sure how to do it, so I'm waiting for people who can help me do it. And there's several books that tell me exactly how to do it, but I don't know what the terms mean, and I know that they do."

A picture of James Lyons.
Credit Carol Jackson / WUNC
James Lyons works on his mountain bike at The Recyclery.

Giorgi said at the ReCYCLEry, age and experience is all relative.

"The people, the main principals who run it now, are all people who have been riding bikes for years, male and female. Nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something," he said.

"And I try to tell people when they come to the door, if they know 10 percent of something, and the other person knows zero, that makes them the expert on that 10 percent. They better act like they're the expert, and then they'll learn the rest."

Giorgi said it costs about $20,000 per year to keep the lights on and run local riding programs for kids. They make that money from grants and donations, and teaching formal mechanic classes. The ReCYCLEry also does repairs for UNC-Chapel Hill's campus bike share.


A picture of hands working on a bike.
Credit Carol Jackson / WUNC
Giselle John assembled her own bike, even though she hadn't ridden in years.

The ReCYCLEry works to use every part of each bike it can, Giorgi added. It sends busted tires to a shop that grinds them up for playground material. Or bent frames go to a clean metal recycling shop. There are only a few parts that can't be reused.

"Rubber grips breakdown over time. Environmentally, they don't hold up well to rain, so they get sticky and gooey, and you can't do much with them but put them in the trash," Giorgi said. "And sometimes we get seats that are so destroyed. They're full of foam inside them and they soak up water and soak up mold and things like that. They have to be thrown away as well."

Giorgi said he guesses the ReCYCLEry throws away a trash bag the size of a yard's waste every month or two. Nevertheless, he estimates the ReCYCLEry has helped get nearly 4,500 bikes back on the road.

Here is a look at the ReCYCLEry:


Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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