GRAND RAPIDS — Handbag and luggage manufacturer Public Thread developed its business strategy around the idea that one company’s waste could be another’s raw material.
With a triple bottom line approach, the Grand Rapids-based company employs a small team of people who breathe new life into discarded textiles from a range of industries, everything from craft brewing to office furniture manufacturing.
“We’re aiming to be a solution to a systemic problem while making really cool stuff in the process,” Janay Brower, founder of Public Thread, told MiBiz.
Even with careful management, West Michigan’s landfills continue to swell with waste. Upcycling — the transformation of by-products or waste materials into new, quality materials or products — is her answer to the stockpile of one-use materials that can be sourced from the region’s industries.
The idea behind the company started with the beer industry in 2016 when Brewery Vivant became one of her first partners. The Grand Rapids-based brewer of farmhouse ales came to Public Thread with a unique source of material, saying it was trying to find a use for the up to 100 leftover single-use grain bags it generated per month.
Public Thread designed and commercially produced 4-pack beer caddies and growler holders from the grain bags.
“It’s like beer inception,” Brower said.
West Michigan hosts one of the most diverse materials manufacturing supply chains in the U.S., and within a few short months, her company’s capabilities spread by word of mouth to the region’s office furniture makers.
“I started to really understand the scope of what was being thrown out or what was available that was extra or leftover from the manufacturing process,” Brower said.
At best, these high-quality materials in the past may have found their way into carpet backing or another “lower-use, low-value” product. However, Public Thread can design and produce commercial goods that the furniture companies are proud of — and might even buy back, according to Brower.
“We can actually take this really beautiful fabric that they use and upcycle it into products,” she said. “Then they can purchase those products, because they want to showcase all of these amazing fabrics and textiles that they have.”
In addition, Public Thread partners with local businesses, marketers and event planners to produce swag bags and purse lining from banners, billboards and promotional signs that are used for a short time and then discarded. In one example, the company uses upcycled upholstery fabric and 3-D knit material with a polyester zipper to make laptop bags.
Many of the products’ straps and handles are made from seatbelts cut from scrap vehicles at Holland-based Louis Padnos Iron and Metal Co.
Although Public Thread has a diverse supply of materials thanks to West Michigan’s broad pool of manufacturers, Brower thinks the company’s model could be scalable in other communities.
“Public Thread could be in every community, it would just look different,” she said. “If you were a community where there were a lot of tires, you could make shoes or use whatever materials are coming from the local supply chain.”
This year, businesses and municipalities across the country have been jammed with significantly more recyclable waste than in the past.
For decades, China was importing recyclable waste from the U.S. to be made into goods such as inexpensive shoes, bags and plastic products. That process stopped last year. In the face of an overwhelming environmental crisis, China began heavily restricting and banning the import of certain waste products including mixed paper — like magazines, newspaper, junk mail and printer paper, as well as most plastics and textile materials.
That abrupt decision has left manufacturers, recycling centers and communities scrambling for alternatives, according to Angela Fox, community and education director at GreenMichigan.org.
“We’re a consumerist society and we’re a wasteful society, and now we’re having to deal with our own recycling as our own country, whereas we’ve never had to do that before,” Fox told MiBiz.
Public Thread currently is holding about 40,000 pounds of scrap material, according to Brower.
“We are maxed out at what we can take,” she said. “But we continue to try to find new clients because we’re really looking to be able to scale up. Local manufacturers want a local community solution to this because the reality is you can start to have a really big footprint if you have to start shipping stuff to other places.”
If Public Thread can grow by 30 percent, it could recycle in the ballpark of four tons of material per year, according to Brower.
Next month, the company is expanding, moving operations from a 2,500-square-foot facility on South Division Avenue to 5,500 square feet on Buchanan Avenue SW.
“We’ll be able to set everything up to have more storage space and better process flow,” she said. “Because we have so much material, it’s all over the place right now.”
Brower, who admits that the company’s supply chain may seem “risky” or unreliable to observers, said revenues at Public Thread have been “doubling” yearly since 2016.
The company, which won a $20,000 grant from a Start Garden Inc. competition last year, is looking for investors that can help it grow, with the goal that Public Thread will eventually become an employee-owned corporation. Currently, Public Thread employs eight people, along with contract employees.
“We would love eventually to be able to help other communities figure out what they can do with the manufacturing and the extra that you have in your community,” she said. “But for now, we’re just trying to build this model and show that you can do it right here and you can make it work.”