Bicyclean — Pedal-Powered Means Of Recycling E-Waste In Developing Nations

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Most of the toxic e-waste that ‘developed’ nations produce eventually ends up in the ‘developing’ world, where people who no longer have other means of generating an income often work with the toxic materials to extract metals and eke out a living. It isn’t something that immediately comes to mind for most people when they are buying a shiny new computer, but it is the current reality — the toxic materials that are used to construct the electronics of the modern world almost invariably find themselves being burned, deconstructed, and dumped in poorer nations, contaminating the land and water of these places and having a very negative effect on the health of the humans and animals which live there.

Acer Foundation's Incredible Green Contest in Taiwan, Agbogbloshie e waste toxic dumping, Bicyclean, Bicyclean developing world ewaste, Bicyclean e-waste recycling, e-waste developing nations toxic, e-waste developing world, e-waste dumping Africa, e-waste toxic health problems, Harvard Committee on African Studies, heavy metal pollution e-waste, toxic e-waste shipped to third world
Acer Foundation’s Incredible Green Contest in Taiwan, Agbogbloshie e waste toxic dumping, Bicyclean, Bicyclean developing world ewaste, Bicyclean e-waste recycling, e-waste developing nations toxic, e-waste developing world, e-waste dumping Africa, e-waste toxic health problems, Harvard Committee on African Studies, heavy metal pollution e-waste, toxic e-waste shipped to third world

But now, an engineering sciences undergraduate at Harvard — Rachel Field — may have come up with a partial solution to this problem. She has designed a simple, cheap pedal-powered means of extracting the valuable metals from the other materials without the use of heat, and while in a completely sealed enclosure, offering some protection to those working with the materials. The invention is called “Bicyclean.”

Bicyclean is essentially just a pedal-powered grindstone which can completely crush entire circuit boards, while capturing the dust in a sealed polycarbonate enclosure — but the design may perhaps be of great use to those who regularly work with the toxic materials. The design recently won the silver award at the Acer Foundation’s Incredible Green Contest in Taiwan. As a result of the $35,000 prize, Field is now planning to return to Ghana to test a 2nd-generation prototype.

The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences provides background:

A slum on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, received major media attention in 2010 and 2011 when the outside world realized where computers go to die. In an area called Agbogbloshie, impoverished residents were burning broken electronic parts, discarded and dumped by wealthier nations, to extract the metal components. Crouched around bonfires, they inhaled toxic smoke and unwittingly leached heavy metals into a nearby river, just to eke out a living.

Harvard undergraduate Rachel Field read the news reports and devoted her senior thesis project to addressing the problem. Captivated by the problem in her senior year, Field dove headfirst into her research. Supported by a grant from the Harvard Committee on African Studies, she traveled to Agbogbloshie in January 2012, and spent her month-long winter break meeting the community and observing their work.

“It really does look surreal,” she says. “An otherworldly place. When I first got there, it was just completely shocking and unbelievable that people would expose themselves to this hazard. But, obviously, most of the people who work there are living in these slums that are right next to it.”

Image Credit: Rachel Field
Image Credit: Rachel Field

“I knew it was very important to the project that I see what was going on first hand, and that I really talk to people,” she explains. “There was a phase where I had this vision of building something like those emergency trailers that go out after big storms, but with a little chemical lab in it. Of course, once I went there, I realized that would make no sense.

“What’s interesting, though, is that a lot of guys there know how to weld. There are a lot of very talented craftsmen, because they’re already using these types of skills to very expertly dismantle the electronics.”

What would be useful, would be a device which the Ghanaians could actually create themselves, Field realized, which is what got her thinking about bicycles. With the help of design preceptor Joe Zinter and specialist Jordan Stephens, Field then created a list of goals and constraints for any potential designs. “I thought, well, what do I not want them to do? I don’t want people to be directly exposed to toxins, and if that’s one of the parameters then I don’t want people to have to use heat. I want this to be something that people can afford and build from materials that are already available to them.”

Parameters easily met by using bicycle parts — bicycles are ubiquitous throughout much of the world, and are portable, relatively inexpensive, and don’t require fuel or electricity — hence the selected design.

With the prize money from winning the Incredible Green Contest, Field now plans to head back to Agbogbloshie and to work on the creation of a 2nd-generation prototype.

“I didn’t ever want to be someone who just stopped by for a month, saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll totally help you out,’ and then never show up again, so this is pretty exciting,” she explains. “When I got to send that message to them, it was a really good moment for me. At the end of the day, the site is still there, the problem’s still there, and hopefully this is going to be part of the solution.”

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

CleanTechnica Holiday Wish Book

Holiday Wish Book Cover

Click to download.

Our Latest EVObsession Video

I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it!! So, we've decided to completely nix paywalls here at CleanTechnica. But...
Like other media companies, we need reader support! If you support us, please chip in a bit monthly to help our team write, edit, and publish 15 cleantech stories a day!
Thank you!

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

James Ayre has 4830 posts and counting. See all posts by James Ayre

6 thoughts on “Bicyclean — Pedal-Powered Means Of Recycling E-Waste In Developing Nations

  • Very good idea. In many developing countries, they grind the flour by hand, if they can use the bicycle power, then the work can be done much more easily.

    This will give a good exercise as well.

  • People like Rachel Field give me hope for a better tomorrow.

    No doubt the fossil fuel “energy experts” will poo poo this potentially massive saving of energy if done all over the world as a “drop in the bucket”. They mat even engage in the ridiculous false argument (used against PV and Wind) that the energy required to make the metals in the Bicyclean versus the energy output by this wonderful device makes its EROEI “too low”.

    I wrote a bit of satire on the ridiculous pretzel logic of the fossil nuke “energy experts” out there. I hope readers will get a good laugh and learn about the propaganda techniques used against renewable energy machines as well:



    [size=18pt][color=blue]Ladies and gentlemen, I speak before you on a subject of paramount importance![/color][/size][/b] We must stop spending outrageous amounts of totally unjustified GOBS of WASTEFUL energy in making devices that simply DO NOT generate more energy than is used to manufacture them!


    [color=maroon]I speak of that wasteful device called a PUSH MOWER! [/color][color=red]Have you any idea how much energy it takes to, like, HEAT metal to temperatures necessary to make the blades and bar for a push mower!!?[/color]


    Why is that important? [i]Because we must be careful about building things that don’t run on fossil fuels.[/I] OOPS! Uh, I mean we don’t want to waste one tiny bit of the energy we have, now do we? grin


    [size=12pt]So how do we find the answer to this energy question scientifically, truthfully, objectively and without any fibs either? [/size]


    Well, first we must take a Systems Approach [I](very scientific, you see )[/I] to the issue.


    A push mower lasts about 30 years. During that time a lawn is mowed about 6 times a year for a total of 180 times (average for 36.5 varieties of monocotyledon grass species growing at our United States of Texas land exploitation research parcels .


    After carefully computing the number of blade rotations and BTUs generated by a, sniff, tree hugger human during this period, our team of Exxon scientists ( OOPS! I mean objective systems approach scientific personnel , of course – grin) determined that the generated BTUs TO CUT THE GRASS ARE ONLY 25% of the BTUs needed to manufacture the push mower!


    [size=24pt][i][color=brown]This waste is a great grass stain on our society.[/color][/I][/size] [img][/img] :sorry: [img][/img] :whip:


    HORRORS! [img][/img]

    Energy, energy, energy! We can’t go wasting the precious, lovely, cheap, wholesome, high energy density fossil fuels we are running low on to make push mowers. We need that fossil fuel for our power mowers! [img][/img][img][/img]


    You see, if we don’t make those silly, uneconomical, LOW EROEI push mowers, the ICE (internal combustion engine) powered mowers will do the job with an average of 70% time savings on mowed lawns. Everyone knows that time saved equals a humongous amount of BTUs! [img][/img]


    You can then personally use all that energy to day trade fossil fuel stocks. Say what? Yeah, you can trade other stocks too but we are just trying to be objective here (Charlie, get that wise guy outta here. ;)).


    [color=maroon][I]This research was brought to you out of the kindness of the heart of the


    [b]Institute for the Scientific, Objective, Unbiased, Legal, Apple Pie Study of Accurate Assessments of NON-ICE powered Machines Damaging Our Oil Picture (ISOULAPSAANIMDOP).[/b] 8) [img][/img]


    Our Corporate Headquarters are at P.O. Box 666, Cayman Islands. [/I] [img][/img][/color]


    [move][b][i][size=14pt][color=green]Don’t miss the ISOULAPSAANIMDOP research soon to be published on the subject of energy to manufacture [/color][color=red]the horrendously wasteful Snow Shovels :emthdown:- VERY LOW EROEI – [/color][color=green]versus Snow throwers/Blowers :emthup:… :evil5: :evil6: :LolLolLolLol: [/color] [/size][/i][/b][/move]


    • Columbia University study on the energy return of PV (from 15 to 60 times the energy required to produce them!) Don’t let anybody tell you PV AND Wind have a low EROEI, It’s a lie. They both have much higher EROEI than fossil fuels.

      How Long Does it Take for Photovoltaics

      To Produce the Energy Used?

      By Vasilis Fthenakis

      Vasilis Fthenakis is a senior chemical engineer and director of thePhotovoltaics Environmental Research Center at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He also holds a joint appointment with Columbia Universityas professor of earth and environmental engineering and the founder
      and director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis.
      He is the author of 300 publications, member of the Editorial Boards of Progress in Photovoltaics and the Journal of Loss Prevention. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and a Fellow of the International Energy Foundation. He can be reached at

      • The Fthenakis article you link states that energy payback for silicon panels is less than two years. For thin film it’s less than one year.

        Just wanted to make that clear since I misunderstood your comment and went to the source.

        • Right Bob. My whole point is that Renewable energy just gets more and more cost effective while the fossil nukers continue to claim otherwise.

  • Can I do that here, in the States? Can I make a bike, and start recycling, or is that some kind of infringement?

Comments are closed.