Garbage Bikes

Cambridge Journal

With prices of everything skyrocketing these days, Cambridge resident Ellen McBride has found a way of getting what she needs for nothing--the garbage.

A professed penny pincher, McBride has been salvaging items from the trash around town for practically all of her 30 years living in the city. Fans, lamps and other electrical appliances are prize finds for McBride, but bicycle parts are particularly important for both her and the kids in her neighborhood.

Although she claims that she is not running any "organized programs or anything," McBride donates her time and scavenged bike parts to fixing and assembling bicycles for children whose parents might not have the time or money.

"People throw away a lot of stuff in this country," the 48-year-old unemployed construction worker says. "You have to remind kids that they can do this too and that they don't have to go out to Bradlees."

McBride says her hunts are most fruitful during the fall and spring, when people are cleaning out their houses. She knows the schedule of trash pick-up days and on those days, McBride can often be found riding around on her own bicycle, competing with the sanitation workers for her pick of the garbage.


"Junk has always been a part of my life," McBride boasts. "I grew up in Chelsea and Chelsea is the junk capital of the world."

Stressing the importance of bike riding as an alternative mode of transportation, McBride said she has been a bicycler since she was 18. She said she started fixing bikes and salvaging parts as well as other items because she could not afford to buy a new bicycle to replace one that was stolen.

McBride tries to pass on her knowledge and sympathy for those who, like her, may not be able to afford a new bicycle. There is no fee for her services and there are no formal set-up for her operation. She says word of her services travels by mouth and that she offers help to the young bikers simply because "all kids like to ride bikes."

McBride says she tries to teach the kids how to fix a bike themselves so in the future they can help themselves and friends. She also tells the children how she salvages bike parts to teach them how to be thrifty.

"I respect the parents' wishes if they tell the kids not to get dirty or not to fool around with their bike," McBride said. "But I do tell them that I got the parts from the trash so they can tell their parents that is an option of where they can look too."

McBride advocates trash picking for people who cannot afford a new lamp or bicycle or for people who, like students, might want to save a few dollars.

She advises potential scavengers to get a schedule of trash pick-up days, to go out early in the morning before sanitation trucks complete their rounds and to just "keep your eyes open."

A former anthropology major at University of Massachusetts, McBride likens garbage picking to conducting an excavation or being an explorer.

Having seen people of all economic levels sifting through trash piles with her, McBride says that more and more people seem to be taking advantage of the resource potential of the garbage.

"If you don't have the money and it doesn't bother you, then go for it," McBride says.