Turning old inner tubes into trendy shoulder bags sounds as far-fetched as turning base metals into gold. Impossible? Not when you have Seattleite Eli Reich at your helm.
Reich, a former engineer who had also worked in the wind-power industry, founded Alchemy Goods on a simple idea: When his coveted messenger bag was stolen, “he knew he wanted his new bag to be both waterproof and recycled,” explains Ben Ernst, Alchemy Goods’ Recycling Coordinator. “When he looked around, he couldn’t find one that met those criteria.”
A committed cyclist, Reich realized he had plenty of his own material to craft a new bag, albeit from interesting parts — old bicycle inner tubes. When friends saw his one-of-a-kind bag, they wanted one too. “He decided to launch the company based on upcycled materials,” says Ernst. (Upcycling, for those less versed on the subject, turns something of lesser value into something of greater value.)
Ag — the company’s logo resembles the elemental symbol for silver — is at its core a Seattle company.
“Everything we do is cleaned, sorted and designed at workshops right here in the city,” Ernst. says Despite the company’s decidedly green thrust, Ernst notes that the design is “just as important” as the upcycling for Ag’s products. “Design dictates usefulness and lifespan,” he explains. “It’s more challenging than simply buying some fabric — it requires more careful design, thanks to the limitations of the materials.”
Employees actually trawl junkyards, for example, for old seatbelts, which are then conjured into straps for Ag’s various bags. Seatbelt clasps are turned into bottle openers. In a former life, an Ag belt buckle was a bicycle wheel cog, transformed by a local blacksmith. A shiny black toiletry bag named Elliott is crafted from a truck’s inner tube. The found becomes the newfound.
Ag’s Mercer shoulder bag illustrates this duality, along with the upcycled products’ tendency to be both retro and modern at the same time. “You can fit an iPad into the interior sleeve of that bag,” Ernst says. “Each bag carries a story from another lifetime. It might be the writing on an inner tube, the wear-patterns from being inside a mountain bike’s wheel or patches. Each bag is completely unique.”
A small number on the top right corner of each product’s logo tells consumers what percentage of materials is recycled and/or upcycled. “We strive to be completely transparent about that,” Ernst says. “We struggle constantly to make that number as high as possible.”
Ag amasses bicycle inner tubes from all over the country but — to no surprise — a strong selection of old inner tubes exists right here in Seattle. And the process is involved. “An inner tube arrives to us on the loading dock,” explains Ernst. “It’s sorted by size, different styles for different patterns, washed and cut to the needs of each pattern, and then sewn together to create an exterior fabric.” Ernst also indicates that quality control ensures that each piece is backed by a lifetime guarantee.
“We’re really striving to take something that has been discarded and make something of greater value,” Ernst says.
You can currently purchase Alchemy Goods through assorted local retailers; but the company will open its first retail store this April at 1723 1st Ave. S. in Seattle.
Mark Mussari, a freelance writer, translator and educator, is the author of a number of educational books and a Udub grad with a Ph.D. in Scandinavian Languages & Literature.