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The Islabikes 'Imagine Project' aims to make bikes that last forever

How the circular economy could change the way we see bicycle ownership

Joseph Delves
15 Mar 2017

‘At some point in the near future raw materials will become so precious that businesses and governments will begin mining our landfill sites later this century to recover what was thrown away in the last.’ This is the opinion of bike maker Isla Rowntree, along with many others who have examined the way societies consume raw materials and the products produced from them.

Cyclists like to imagine they’re helping the environment, but there’s still plenty of wastage attached to the business of producing and riding bicycles, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the manufacture of bicycles for younger riders.

With the average kid easily outgrowing their first few bikes long before they approach the end of their service-life, the options are either to pass the bike on, or more often, buy cheap and scrap it once it’s too small.

It’s estimated that globally we dump 2.12 billion tonnes of waste every year and that 99% of the materials used to make the things we buy are thrown away within six months.

This linear model of take-make-dispose can only last so long on a planet with finite natural resources.

A good start towards ending this model is to make products of sufficient quality that they can refurbished and reused. A kid’s bike maker with very grown up aspirations, Islabikes was founded 11 years ago to produce a range of high quality kids bikes that were ergonomically matched to the needs of smaller users.

However, as the brand grew its founder Isla Rowntree became increasingly concerned by the waste inherent in the cycle industry's current method of manufacture and supply.

While informal methods of passing on outgrown kids bikes will be familiar to anyone palmed off with an older relative's hand-me-downs, to complete a truly circular supply chain she became convinced a new concept of ownership was necessary.

Her latest project is a range of bikes that aims to revolutionise the way bikes are created and passed on.

‘We’re developing a small range of much more sustainably made bicycles to be produced in the UK. We’ll then rent them to the end user, therefore the responsibility for the raw materials will remain with us’ explained Rowntree.

‘When one child has outgrown it, the bicycle will come back to us and we’ll refurbish it and rent it to another child.’

With Islabikes retaining ownership of the bicycle, it’ll be in their interests to design for the longest possible life.

Aiming for each bike to have a 50 year working life, to achieve this the firm has had to rethink the way its bicycles are designed and made.

Taking cues from utility bikes of the past, their prototype uses a steel frame, with an enclosed hub gear and brake system. The design also places an emphasis on the bike being both hardwearing and easy to refresh aesthetically, so as to appeal to users potentially sceptical of using a pre-used bike.

Materials are designed to be easily separable for end of life recycling and sourced as close to the point of manufacture as possible. To this end UK firms Reynolds and Brooks have both come onboard for the project.

‘Our aspiration is to become the cycle industry experts in the sustainable supply of bicycles’ says Rowntree.

The project is aiming to make public their experience, with the hope that this open source approach will inspire more manufacturers to move toward a circular supply chain model and reduce their reliance on raw materials.

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