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Q. Dear Umbra,

 I bought a new bicycle helmet, and I’m wondering what to do with my old one. I worry that donating it is irresponsible, since I am no longer confident in its noggin-protecting abilities. But sending it to the landfill isn’t a good option either. What is the best thing to do?

 Anne D.
Seattle, Wash.

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A. Dearest Anne,

You know what you could do with your old bike helmet? Use it as a chafing dish for the beautiful cake you are going to bake for the 10th anniversary of Ask Umbra this month!

OK, fine, I have some other ideas too. But readers, don’t forget to send anniversary greetings my way — the most creative will be featured on Grist.

Anne, you get points for being a responsible cyclist and replacing your brain bucket (see these guidelines for when to do it). As I’ve said before, bike helmets are not easily recyclable, but we should try not to lose too much sleep over sending helmets to the landfill, given the many, many other ecological (and economic) benefits of the bicycling habit. However, I’ve unpacked a few new thoughts from my pannier:

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  • Recycle it. This is not a super-easy option, since the U.S. currently seems to have exactly zero bicycle-helmet recycling programs. Happily for you, one is taking shape in (where else) Portland — I hope you will contact the enterprising fellow behind it and find out where to drop your helmet there, or how to start a similar program in Seattle. Another option, if you’re feeling ambitious or aggressive, is to dismantle the thing yourself. The plastic shell, if it’s PET (#1) instead of a fancier material, can often be recycled; the foam, generally EPS (expanded polystyrene), can sometimes be recycled too — as always, check with your local authorities. The buckles and straps you’ll most likely have to pitch.
  • Donate it to a training organization. You’re quite right that you can’t just drop your helmet off at any old secondhand store, leaving some unsuspecting cyclist with subpar protection. (That said, some manufacturers’ recommendation of replacing a helmet every three years might be a tad over the top, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute — see our related discussion about carseat “expiration”.) You might check with your local fire department or other emergency-responder program to see if they have any need for helmets in their training programs.
  • Turn it into something useful. Quite a bit of poking around has led me to conclude that the No. 1 idea for creative helmet reuse is — drumroll, please — planters! You simply line the helmet with cloth, fill it with dirt and seeds, hang it by the straps, and there you have it. Obviously, choose a plant that does not need vast amounts of space. Other suggestions I’ve seen include a holder for towels or fruit; an ersatz nest for birds; a clock; target practice; a trick-or-treat bucket; or bookends (saw it in half and attach each piece to a heavy base). I love that last idea but I see no proof of anyone having done it — let me know if you try!
  • Turn it into something playful. Have a little fun and become R2D2, a special forces agent, or a zombie hunter … or make a giant spider (that one requires two helmets) or a scarecrow. I would not recommend making such alterations to helmets currently in use, but these sure are entertaining to look at. Do I smell a Grist slideshow?

Finally, let’s take heart that, while the industry has been sluggish when it comes to improving the eco-friendliness of these crucial safety items, there are glimmers of hope upon the horizon. Prototypes made from kinder materials such as corrugated cardboard and cork are popping up, and with hope will soon be widely available.

Readers, let us know below if you have other ideas. And be safe out there!


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