The waste we produce in our daily lives is just one small portion of the total waste stream. Public Thread and Rewilder, two winners of the recently announced Upcyclers Network Annual Product Awards, are putting non-household waste streams to creative use.
Waste. It’s something that has become top of mind for many of us at both a personal and professional level. We are newly cognizant of the trash produced in our office buildings and lunchrooms. At home, we wonder if the paper and plastic we put in the blue bin is really being recycled. Some of us have even committed to zero-waste lifestyles.
But it’s important to remember that the waste we produce in our daily lives, what we see and feel in control of, is just one portion of the total waste stream — and a small portion at that. To calculate total waste generation, we would have to include not just the waste we produce as consumers (typically categorized as municipal solid waste), but construction waste (C&D), hazardous waste and industrial waste. And how much does that “other” waste amount to? Unfortunately (and, perhaps, tellingly), the latest figures from the US come from a 1987 study, which states that municipal solid waste only accounts for 3 percent total waste, with the remaining 97 percent coming from industrial activities! For a more present-day picture, a 2016 EU study calculated that household waste made up only 8.5 percent of the total EU total waste stream.
So, it’s painfully obvious that creating a true circular economy requires solutions for the waste that must of us don’t directly produce. We need to look into supply chains and think about the waste generated by the creation of our products, the building of our homes and the sourcing of our energy needs. But where to start?
Two of the winners of the recently announced Upcyclers Network Annual Product Awards are focused on these non-household waste streams. Rewilder won the B2C Material Innovation Category, for its Airbag Backpack; and Public Thread topped the B2C Closed Loop Category for its work with Steelcase.
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Rewilder is a sustainable fashion and accessories brand with a zero-waste production model that finds beauty in discarded industrial materials — the company has utilized everything from airbags, mesh banners and brewery filters to seatbelts and even car covers in its products. Founded in 2014 by Lisa Siedlecki and Jenny Silbert, Rewilder is based, and manufacturers, in Los Angeles.
For Rewilder's ambitious, limited-edition, zero-waste rain jacket, every component is made from salvaged automotive materials. Image credit: Rewilder
“The high durability of the materials we focus on make them difficult to fit within the current recycling infrastructure,” Silbert says. “However, these characteristics make them the perfect fit to creating long-lasting slow fashion products that can hold up to wear and tear. For example, Rewilder's Airbag Backpack is crafted from durable, high-performance airbag fabric & seat belts. This is material that is destined to live in a landfill for 500+ years! When you purchase one of our Airbag backpacks, it’s the equivalent of saving 265 lbs of CO₂ in the process. That's equal to planting 6 trees, biking 300 miles vs driving, or forgoing meat for 42 days.”
Since the company’s founding, consumer interest has been strong. However, its greatest challenge has been in changing suppliers’ mindsets and processes to enable proper recovery of material.
As Silbert explains: “We make it a point to pay for our material — even though we are technically lowering costs for our suppliers, because they no longer have to pay disposal fees. However, we know if we truly want to push the mindset, that waste should be seen as a resource; paying for material is important to supporting that shift. And even with this financial incentive, getting manufacturers to change their processes to accommodate material recovery has been a slow process.”
A Public Thread laptop case made from upcycled leather, repurposed upholstery materials and 3D knit fabric. Image credit: Public Thread
Public Thread is a women-owned social enterprise located in Grand Rapids, Michigan; specializing in the small-batch production of goods made from locally sourced, upcycled textiles. It offers both batch ordering of upcycled promotional products, as well as direct to consumer products via e-commerce.
Public Thread takes scrap, salvaged and surplus textiles from manufacturing partners and re-purposes them into stylish bags and cases.
“Textile waste is the third-biggest contributor to our landfills in West Michigan, and 85 percent of the textile waste comes from post-industrial sources. For this reason, we partner with companies like Steelcase, who are not only industry leaders but also innovative in utilizing a circular economy approach,” says founder Janay Brower. “Through our partnership, we upcycle their scrap and surplus fabric into products that can go right back into their ecosystem in the form of promotional products, branded gifts and more. So far this year, we are on track to divert 3.4 tons of materials and have kept 26 percent out of the waste stream and fully circular.”
Prior to starting Public Thread in 2016, Brower worked for 14 years in community organizing for system change in both the public and nonprofit sectors. Through this experience, she felt that what individuals truly needed was economic empowerment — a chance to use their talents and skills to care for themselves and their families.
“My goal with Public Thread is to create a production infrastructure and economic model that centers on people, the planet and profit,” she explains. “In an industry that for far too long as only focused on profit, Public Thread will be a worker-owned social enterprise that provides living-wage employment, diverts textile waste from landfills and supports the growth a vibrant and equitable creative economy in West Michigan. In just three short years — with our local business, nonprofit, public and investment partners — we’ve already been able to divert 70,000+ pounds of textiles and materials, and create and sustain living-wage jobs for highly skilled community members.”
While most of us lack the means to utilize surplus material found in industrial supply chains, what we can do is incorporate the waste factor into our personal and business purchasing decisions. As we strive to lower our waste footprint, we can also lower our consumption footprint by supporting businesses and brands that aren’t using virgin materials for their products, and are instead recirculating materials and value that would have previously been lost to landfill. These businesses are truly building the circular and equitable production models of the future. In honor of America Recycles Day this week and beyond, it’s important to not just recycle, but do our part to Buy Recycled.