For many cyclists, bike panniers are an indespensible part of life. What if it were possible to make them entirely from recycled waste? As part of a true circular economy? This is just what we’ve accomplished with the new bike bags in the VAUDE ReCycle series. We’re introducing these innovative bags and taking a look back at a challenging development story of the initial concept, the first prototype tests and series production.
A long journey to the first bike bags made entirely of recycled materials
It was a scorching hot day in Uganda. In a small town in the African savannah, four globetrotting cyclists from Germany stopped to take a break. The air was glittered with dust. While they sought some respite in the shade, their bikes remained in the blazing midday sun. Kai Vogt took a quick look at his bike’s two yellow panniers before setting his helmet down on his gear rack. The bags looked almost identical, but they had fundamental differences. One was a prototype with a new back panel and mounting hooks made from recycled materials. The other was a conventional pannier being used for comparison. Kai Vogt is the Head of Innovation and Hardware Equipment at VAUDE and his vacation served as a dress rehearsal for the suspension systems of the ReCycle bags. In retrospect, he confesses: “I had some doubts about whether the prototype would survive 1,500 kilometers of track in difficult conditions, but I wanted to find out.” After all, almost three years of work had already gone into the project. Constructing a pannier from recycled plastic waste may not sound like a major development. However, the load bearing elements really required technical pioneering work. It wasn’t an easy route from the original concept to the dress rehearsal and market readiness.
More than three years of development and testing
Why so much effort? VAUDE has set itself the goal of manufacturing 90 percent of its products from primarily recycled or biobased materials by 2024 at the latest. This will significantly reduce the consumption of fossil resources and CO2 emissions. In the case of recycling, moreover, waste that would otherwise end up in the incinerator becomes valuable raw materials. For these panniers, along with the recycled primary material, the suspension system was the next step and a real challenge for the development team led by plastics specialist Clément Affholder. The back panel of a pannier bag for the gear rack had to be UV-resistant, abrasion-resistant, inherently stable and impact-resistant – even in extreme temperatures. VAUDE couldn’t just rely on existing technologies. There simply weren’t any.
So new ground had to be broken in the southern German town of Tettnang‑Obereisenbach. “We were eager to work with post-consumer waste. It was also important to us to implement the project within a German or European supply chain in order to keep distances short – for en ensuing production as well,” said Affholder, explaining the original concept. At the 2018 International Trade Fair for Plastics Processing (Fakuma), the team got into contact with the environmental service provider and recycling specialist, Interseroh. The initial exchange gave rise to optimism. It was clear that basic research was needed, and now the ideal partner seemed to have been found to tackle the project. Under the name Procyclen, Interseroh produces customizable recycled plastics out of waste from Germany’s yellow bag household plastic recycling system. Unknown at that time, however, was the best recipe for the back panel of our panniers. In order to find it, well over 50 prototypes were made and tested along the way to a market-ready bag. The plastic composition had to be adjusted more than ten times until all properties met our criteria. It was a lengthy process because the production of the prototypes required the same steps that the final back panels are now undergoing in series production: Interseroh sorts and cleans plastic waste at its plant in Brandenburg and uses it to produce post-consumer regranulates. The granules are melted in the Czech Republic and injection molded into the shape of the back panel. Back at VAUDE, the pack sacks, back panels and suspension systems had to be assembled into finished bags in the in-house manufactory. The attachment hooks with slightly different requirements come from another partnership. Together with APK AG from Merseburg, a reinforced polyamide recyclate was found that consists of waste from packaging production and is up to the task.
In-house testing lab is key to success for highest quality
To check whether the prototypes would withstand the high stress of everyday use, they repeatedly went to the in-house test lab before assembly. Especially in the early phase, some back panels broke or became deformed in the lab. The recycled polypropylene couldn’t match the mechanical properties of conventional plastic. Additives were then experimented with in the lab, and the adaptations were made to the technical design. As soon as the first prototypes had passed the standardized material tests, field-testing could begin for the panniers. This primarily involved use by VAUDE employees in their everyday lives. Problems that arose were evaluated directly with the developers and taken into account in the development of each next generation. Throughout the process, VAUDE’s innovation team worked closely with Interseroh to optimize the material properties. The injection molding manufacturing process, however, also had to be kept in mind at all times.
Affholder explains: “We’re not doing rocket science here, but our standards are pretty high. It was important to us that the pannier’s functionality could at least keep up with conventional bags.” In particular, the impact resistance in cold conditions caused the developers some headaches until they found a solution. The ambitious goal was for the back panels not only to survive average German winters, but also to withstand Scandinavian climates, for example, where temperatures of -20 °C and lower are not uncommon. This required a drawn-out testing session in which several dozen back panels made of more than six different plastic compounds were examined for their load-bearing capacity and more to reveal the best candidate.
After several generations of prototypes, the opportunity arose for the ‘dress rehearsal’ in Uganda. And despite slight doubts, the bag remained successful over 1,500 kilometers on tracks through tropical rainforest and dusty savannah. As expected, the pannier had signs of use when Kai Vogt brought it back to Tettnang. But it still worked perfectly. Neither the endless rattling in the mountains nor the dusty dryness and heat could bring down the ReCycle. The practical endurance test was successfully passed.
Travel diary of a pannier
Before series production could begin, standardized endurance tests and final pollutant tests were carried out. Clément Affholder emphasizes: “Of course, we have the same, high standards for safety for the ReCycle bags as we do for all our products, and we didn’t want to compromise on that.” No question, the first fully recycled bicycle bags were able to clear this hurdle as well.
The innovative ReCycle series starts with two different bike bags. The ReCycle Back has a volume of 23 liters and has handles for carrying your shopping, while the ReCycle Pro has a volume of 22 liters and standard features. They’re right on par with all other VAUDE panniers in terms of functionality. They feature waterproof welded seams, attach to your gear rack with the user-friendly QMR 2.0 system (Quick Mount Release) and are made in Germany with climate neutral manufacturing.
ReCycle Pro Single:
ReCycle Back Single: