(Photo: Jason Jepsen)
Jason Jepsen is working on an exciting project. The 41-year old self-described “energy and efficiency expert” who just moved to Portland in 2009 after living “off the grid” in Colorado for the past 15 years is putting his personal energy into figuring out how to recycle the foam, plastic shell, fabric straps and plastic buckles that make up bike helmets.
It’s a considerable task, given that helmets are so widely used (about 77% of Portlanders use them according to 2010 PBOT bicycle counts), they only last a few years, and the industry doesn’t give much thought to making them easily recyclable.
“There’s so much support here in Portland, if we can do it anywhere we can do it here; and who knows, maybe affect a better product in the industry.”
A quick search on “helmet recycling” turns up the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s page on recycling which states on the first line: “Summary: We do not know of any recycling programs specifically for bicycle helmets.”
Jepsen wants to change all that. He wants to keep helmets out of landfills, re-use the materials they’re made of, and someday, perhaps persuade the big helmet companies to make more earth-friendly versions.
“Helmets have a limited life span, they’re almost like a disposable product… But people don’t like to think that big chunk is going into the ground,” said Jepsen via telephone yesterday.
Jepsen’s interest in this topic began as a project for a Green Economics/Sustainability Development course he took at Portland State University. At the time he was also volunteering at the Community Cycling Center and got to know employee Gram Shipley (whom you might recall as this stylish fellow). Shipley told Jepsen about that the CCC wanted to do more helmet recycling, but it’s labor intensive, somewhat complicated, and with a lack of ongoing funding, the idea just fell by the wayside.
Legacy Emanuel Hospital (through their Trauma Nurses Talk Tough program) had been doing some helmet recycling, but they recently stopped the program. CCC Executive Director Alison Hill-Graves says they were collecting helmets and sending them over to Legacy, but now they’re not sure what to do with them.
That’s where Jepsen comes in. With his experience in the plastics industry and with a passion for recycling, he has jumped into this helmet project head first and is actively aligning partners and hammering out details of a local program.
Here’s how it might work: Bike shops will have a large container where customers can drop off old helmets (Jepsen says several major shops are already interested); when the containers fill up, shops can arrange for pick up or drop off to a storage facility; volunteers (the BTA has already shown interest in helping out) will then gather once or twice a year to disassemble the helmets and haul the materials off to the appropriate recycling facility.
“This needs to go upstream at some point. They’re made in a backwards way. You can make a better, more recyclable helmet without sacrificing anything.”
Even once the process is up and running (which is still a big if, given that Jepsen is volunteering and has no budget), the waste streams are “not ideal” for Jepsen. The plastic shells are shipped overseas and melted down into oil, the foam is melted down into a “sub-desirable foam product” and then shipped to China. The fabric and plastic buckles might be sent to a re-use store like the School and Community Re-use Action Project (SCRAP).
Not only are the waste streams questionable, the labor needed to prep the materials so that the local recyclers will accept them is intensive (all stickers, labors, glue and velcro must be removed from foam, for instance).
Jepsen’s larger goal is to change how helmets are made in the first place. “This needs to go upstream at some point. They’re made in a backwards way. You can make a better, more recyclable helmet without sacrificing anything.”
For example, Jepsen says, major helmet brands like Giro and Bell inject foam in their helmets with a plastic or nylon matrix that is impossible to separate out — and “those go straight to the garbage” he says. The plastic outer shell with the snazzy graphics that ends up being melted down into oil? Jepsen says he’d like to see those done away with altogether.
This project is still in its infancy, but if anyone can make it happen, Jepsen is the guy. “I don’t have an agenda, I just want to see what can happen with it… There’s so much support here in Portland, if we can do it anywhere we can do it here; and who knows, maybe affect a better product in the industry.”
We’ll have more from Jason as the program develops. He’ll certainly need more help from the community, so stay tuned for updates and opportunities to get involved. In the mean time, if you’d like to get involved with this effort or share a resource, drop us a line and we’ll forward you to the right place.
UPDATE, 8/27/12: I’m sorry to share that this program never fully materialized. I’ll update this story if it ever gets up and running.