Our transition to Imperfect Foods in September of 2019 came with a lot of changes. We not only updated our website and expanded into other aisles of the grocery store, but had to reprint anything that contained our old logo or name. This left us with a lot of out-of-date merch and swag. Since our company is dedicated to reducing waste in the food system, we started wondering: How can we give these old materials new life so they don’t end up in a landfill? After all, we’ve worked with packaged food companies to find a home for their old inventory after a rebrand before. So why not find a company that could help us do the same through upcycling?
That’s when we met Rewilder, an LA-based small business that works to reduce types of waste that most of us never think about. They agreed to work with us to upcycle our old banners and tablecloths into stylish and practical tote bags that use a salvaged seat belt as the strap.
Rewilder makes bags and other items out of materials that would have otherwise gone to waste. This includes items like filters from the beer-making process, salvaged seat belts and airbag fabric from the automobile industry, street banners, and old rope from rock climbing gyms. Rewilder plays the role of “waste detective,” always on the hunt for materials and fabrics that might go to waste and then using their creativity to up-cycle them into useful new goods. They focus primarily on bags and backpacks, but they’ve recently branched out into apparel, like a chic raincoat made from a silver material used to cover vehicles as they are shipped from China to the U.S. Their creativity truly knows no borders or limits.
We’re thrilled to be partnering with Rewilder. To learn more about their innovative business model, we had Rewilder on our podcast and also sat down to interview their founder, Jenny Silbert.
Imperfect Foods: What is the process for finding materials to work with?
Jenny Silbert: At Rewilder, we flip the design process: designing from the perspective of the trash materials found, rather than sourcing new materials to fit a preconceived design. The materials dictate the designs, driving the styles we make and the final detailing.
Finding materials is like detective work. It truly starts by looking at the world with an eye toward what’s going in the trash. In 2014, The Takata corporation recalled 56 million defective airbags, the largest automotive recall in U.S. history. It was this news story that started our research into airbags – literally going to the auto salvage yard and pulling airbags, seatbelts, and liner out of junked cars – and ultimately led to the design and production of the airbag backpack using pre-consumer factory scraps.
We also pay for all of the materials we use. This is a critical part of the current process and gives value enough to the companies that they are willing to work outside of their typical waste processes.
IF: How did you get started?
JS: I have always been drawn to creative reuse; I’ve been scavenging, dumpster diving, rebuilding, and transforming things for as long as I can remember. Rewilder is the perfect confluence of things that I care about – high design and creative reuse – and felt like a perfectly natural extension of my architectural work into product design using repurposed materials.
My professional background is in Architecture and Materials R+D. I came across the beer filter cloth while teaching a Materials Innovation class at Art Center School of Design in Pasadena. In my research, I discovered the massive scale at which it was thrown away, and was inspired to start Rewilder to divert this amazing material from landfill.
IF: What has your work taught you about waste in the U.S.?
JS: There’s A LOT of it. The volume of solid waste created globally per year is estimated at 2.2 billion tons by 2025. It actually costs more to sort and rehabilitate waste materials than to just pay for products to be made with new raw materials. That’s the catastrophic problem with recycling right now. There’s an excellent article from NPR on the issue. This quote in particular applies completely to our line of business in up-cycling: A bottle made of recycled beach plastic “is probably three times as expensive as virgin” – virgin being brand-new plastic made straight from oil and gas out of the ground. This is one of the obstacles to circularity: It costs a lot. Rewilder is facing the same issue: it costs so much to take trash and transform it into something that people want, but it’s tough to compete with brands that manufacture at scale for a fraction of the cost overseas with new materials. Our current culture favors brands that prioritize cost over impact.
IF: From your perspective, why does upcycling matter?
JS: We are in an environmental crisis. We see it all around us every day in Los Angeles. In the U.S., we make way too much trash, and recycling is broken. U.S. export records show that 19,000 shipping containers of plastic recycling per month, once exported abroad, are now stranded at home. This is enough plastic to fill 250 Olympic swimming pools. It is absolutely critical that we become more responsible with our resources.
The response of most industries to this crisis has been to turn sustainability into a buzzword. We now have bamboo products, reusable plastic bottles, organic cotton totes, but none of these things is actually an answer to our trash problem. We’ve created and thrown away so much more material than we could possibly bury.
At Rewilder, we want to divert as much material from landfill as possible, continuing to lead the way toward a culture where we use and reuse materials that are already here, rather than making new ones. Our ultimate goal is to create a business that will challenge, inspire, and change the entire industry.