Riding out of the box

An adventurous inventor is turning recycled cardboard into a durable, ridable low-cost bicycle. Next in the pipeline: Cardboard wheelchairs.

Cardboard Bike (photo credit: Barry Davis)
Cardboard Bike
(photo credit: Barry Davis)
Israelis are becoming increasingly more environmentally aware, and many urban streets sport containers for recycling plastics, glass, paper and even cardboard. All this is certainly a step in the right direction if we are going to save this planet of ours, but Yizhar Gafni has taken the cardboard reuse tack a couple of dozen notches up the efficiency scale.
Gafni has invented a bicycle made almost entirely out of recycled cardboard. This may seem like a fanciful idea, but the proof of the pudding is there to be eaten – and ridden on.
Recently I got on my expensive carbon frame bike and rode from Jerusalem to Moshav Ahituv, near Hadera, to meet Gafni and the third version of his cardboard prototype. After we chatted for a bit, I got onto the strange but somehow alluring bike and took a short ride down the road near Gafni’s house. Admittedly, my own sleek model is more comfortable than the environmentally friendly mode of transport, but Gafni’s bike really works.
And there are product enhancements in the works.
The current model weighs in at a clunky 14 kilograms, which, even for a durable bike designed for use in the city, is pretty hefty.
But the inventor says the eventual end product will be a full 5 kg lighter.
Gafni has big plans, on a truly global scale, for his latest brainchild, even if the gathering momentum does not appear to be premeditated. “Two days ago, a representative of the mayor of London [Boris Johnson] called and said the mayor wants to ride on my cardboard bike at the Tour de London ride in July,” says Gafni. “He wants to be the first person in England to ride the bike.”
That can’t be bad for PR, although Gafni and an old army buddy, Nimrod Elmish, CEO of I.G. Cardboard Technologies, which is behind the venture, say they have done very little in the way of proactively disseminating news of the bike.
“It’s spreading like wildfire,” says Gafni. “I don’t know how, but the word is really getting out there. Until now we basically did interviews with two small publications – [web-based cycling newsletter] Groopy and some other little-known newsletter. From there the news spread like crazy.”
He says he has been taken aback by the feedback. “I didn’t expect this at all, and I had no idea it would become such a hit.”
In fact, Gafni and his cardboard invention are fast becoming a hot media property. A while back there was a report on the bike on Channel 2, and now there are links all over the Internet showing Gafni at work and on the bike. While I was at Ahituv, a French TV crew turned up to do an interview and a team from Al Jazeera was due to pop by, but, understandably, got sidetracked to Gaza.
The day after my visit, a German TV team came to talk to Gafni.
The basic raw materials for the bike include durable recycled cardboard, plastic bottles and recycled tires. “This bike has zero maintenance requirements,” Gafni says, adding that there is no danger of even getting a puncture, as the tires are solid – although he won’t reveal exactly what they are filled with.
Work started on the bike in early 2009, although Gafni has a long history of bicycle-related endeavors and is clearly good with his hands and at coming up with innovative ides. One of his many areas of expertise is automation.
“Yizhar registered his first patent at the age of 12,” says Elmish, who hails from Kibbutz Bror Hayil near the Gaza perimeter, “so he had a kind of head-start on the bike development.”
“I have ridden bikes since I was small,” Gafni says, “and I have worked with them, repaired them and built bicycle wheels. So it was natural for me start thinking about doing something in this field.”
Still, having experience riding and even redesigning conventional bicycles does not necessarily lead to considering the idea of building one out of recycled materials.
The seed for the current enterprise was sown in California, where Gafni was employed for a few years designing an appliance for extracting pomegranate seeds and moonlighting at a local bicycle shop. One day he asked the shop owner if there had ever been any attempts to build a cardboard bicycle. His boss didn’t know of any, but had a friend who had built a canoe out of cardboard, which he used on fishing trips. The canoe was outside in the parking lot, and Gafni’s imagination was duly stoked.
“When I returned to Israel, I went to see two or three engineers whose work I really respect and I asked them if they thought it was possible to make a bike out of cardboard,” he recalls. “They laughed at the idea and said it couldn’t be done.”
But Gafni wasn’t ready to take no for an answer, and his determination was given a shove in the right direction when he read an interview with Boeing 747 passenger plane designer Joe Sutter.
“Sutter said that when he came up with the design for the plane. he was told it was impossible,” Gafni recalls. “So I knew that I was on the right track with my idea of the cardboard bike.”
He soon got down to the nitty-gritty, which meant starting from scratch. After all, no one had ever built a bike from cardboard before.
“I had to develop the technology and the apparatus to build the bike,” he explains, adding that skeptics continued to cast doubts on the practicability of the concept.
“Developing the machinery and apparatus I needed to produce the bike was the really difficult part of all this.” But he made steady progress, first producing a prototype that looked more like a Lego toy than a mode of transport, until he arrived at the current model.
“I went to all sorts of potential investors with the second model, which looked like a piece of cardboard, and they said there was no way I could turn that into something you could ride on. That’s when I realized that I had to make the bike look like a proper bike, so that people would take it seriously.”
Now it’s all systems go. The technology is in place to produce more bikes with cardboard frames, wheels and handlebars coated with a waterproof sealant – Gafni will not reveal any information about the materials and technologies he uses – tires made of recycled rubber and brakes, belt and crank made of recycled plastic bottles.
Elmish is currently working on setting up a full-blown manufacturing plant near Rosh Ha’ayin, and Gafni says they hope to be ready to start mass production in October 2013.
Whichever way you look at this venture, it seems almost too good to be true. It is completely environmentally friendly, costs a mere $9 per unit to produce and will sell for prices starting from $30.
The production line will be largely automated, and people with physical and emotional disabilities will be employed for the hands-on parts of the manufacturing process.
Elmish and Gafni are planning more items in the cardboard product family. There will be several bike models – city bikes for men and women, youth bikes for kids to use between school and home and “balance bikes” – pedalless bikes for small children to train on. Another surprising manufacturing direction in the Gafni pipeline is wheelchairs made of recycled cardboard.
“Next week we’re going to start working on the wheelchairs,” he says. “An international organization that gives out 120,000 wheelchairs a year got in touch with us. We are going to develop a wheelchair for them, for less than half the price, which means they’ll be able to give out 240,000 wheelchairs a year.”
If all goes well, within a few years there will be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cardboard bikes being ridden in cities all over the world. The great added value is that the bikes are not only definitively green – in terms of the manufacturing process as well as usage and maintenance – but they will also be sold at extremely low prices or will be supplied free of charge.
Free? “You have all these large companies around the world which pay enormous fines because of their pollutant emission levels,” explains Gafni. “If, for example, company X buys a million or a hundred thousand cardboard bikes and gives them out children in African countries for free, the companies will be given reductions on the fines.”
According to Gafni, it is not just commercial enterprises that stand to place big orders.
“We are in touch with municipalities around the world – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London – and also some prime ministers. The idea is that the municipalities will also give out bikes for free, which will encourage people to use public transport.”How so? “People will use the bikes to get to public transport, like in Copenhagen where they discovered that three million more people used public transport because of the bike service.
That reduces pollution and traffic congestion, people are healthier and it increases revenue from public transport. Everyone wins out.”
It should also eradicate bicycle theft; Why steal something that doesn’t cost anything? There has also been interest in the bikes from the United States and even China. This bike business could really be a world-beater. If it’s so simple, why didn’t anyone think of it before? “Beats me,” says Gafni.