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Pedal People Offer Human-Powered, Energy-Efficient Recycling

  • Amy Mayer

Most communities in the United States encourage, or even require, recycling. But getting all the bottles, boxes and milk cartons to the recycling center usually requires big trucks hauling heavy loads and using lots of fuel… all in the name of reducing waste. But one small business in Northampton, Massachusetts, offers residents a typical trash-hauling service that doesn't require gas or diesel-fueled trucks.

Ruthy Woodring and Alex Jarrett founded Pedal People 2 ½ years ago. Their 4-person company picks up trash and recycling from 96 customers in Northampton and hauls it to a transfer station by bike. Each rider pulls a 2-meter long trailer, piled high with bins and bags.

"In the first layer," Ms. Woodring explains, "there's 4 plastic tubs stacked up, and then there's 4 more plastic tubs stacked on top of that. By now, that's probably [more than a meter] high to the top of those two plastic tubs, and then on top of the 2 layers of plastic tubs, we stack garbage, bags of garbage. And then, with stretchy cords -- bicycle inner tubes that we've converted into bungee (cords) - we just strap everything on and pile it up as high as we can without becoming too top-heavy and without losing anything." She laughs and admits, "I have lost things before!"

The business partners say Northampton is a bike friendly city. Neither has ever owned a car and Ms. Woodring says when she turned 30 she gave up her driver's license. Today's run brings us to a small business, a pair of next-door neighbors in a residential area and eventually to the Hungry Ghost bakery. The garbage and recycling bins are outside the building, at the top of a short, steep hill.

Hungry Ghost owner Cheryl Maffei comes out with a check for Pedal People. "I completely support what they do," she says as she helps them load up. "They work really hard and they're not using up a lot of resources to do it. They're not adding to the problem, they're literally taking the problem away in so many ways." Ms. Maffei says using Pedal People costs the bakery the same amount it was paying a traditional hauling company.

The next stop will be the transfer center, and the route there partially follows a bike path. Mr. Jarrett's trailer is heavy and he's going uphill, but he carries on a conversation as he pedals. "If you're on flat ground," he explains, "once you get moving, it's pretty easy to keep going, it just takes longer to get started and longer to stop, but I'm not particularly working really hard here, I'm just in a really easy gear so it goes pretty slowly."

Ms. Woodring and Mr. Jarrett say their business idea came from the Iowa company that makes the trailers. In communities on the flat prairie, one rider can pull three loaded trailers at a time. That's not practical here because of Northampton's hills. But that hasn't stopped the Pedal People from tackling some heavy hauling jobs. Ms. Woodring recalls moving one client's belongings across town. "We moved the couch and some dressers and a big, I don't know, [1.5 meter] tall plant. It was only 4 trailer loads and there were 2 of us so it didn't take that long." And, she points out, it's easier to fit a couch on a bike trailer than into a car.

For now, they've got trash to deal with and we finally arrive at the transfer center, where Mr. Jarrett's loaded bike trailer draws attention and laughter. A woman at the center calls to her friend, "Teddy! Come and see this, quick, quick!" while Mr. Jarrett empties his bins and dumps the trash. The day's trip ends with an easy coast back down the bike path. Being a biking garbage man may not be glamorous, but Mr. Jarrett says it's far better than his old job: staring at a computer screen all day.

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