It’s estimated that Americans will spend about 295 billion dollars during the holiday season. Sooner or later, most of what we buy will end up in the garbage – filling the already crowded landfills. But one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, entrepreneurs are taking our garbage and turning it into trendy products:
It’s estimated that Americans will spend about 295 billion dollars during the holiday season.
Sooner or later, most of what we buy will end up in the garbage – filling the already crowded
landfills. But one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. And as the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, entrepreneurs are taking our garbage and turning it into trendy
At the Rec Room in St. Louis, Missouri, Angela Bergman is eyeing the store’s best-selling
product, a belt decorated with vintage bottle caps.
“It’s different, like everyone’s got the same old thing and that’s something not too many people
It’s called the soda cap belt and it was created by the Pittsburgh-based company called Littlearth.
The belt is made out of recycled rubber and the buckle is actually from the seat belt of a car.
Almost all of Littlearth’s products are made from recycled materials.
But Rec Room manager, Ed Sievers, says first and foremost, customers go for the style.
“Not the recycled, that’s certainly far secondary. It’s the fashion. They’re attracted to because of the
coolness and the fashion, basically.”
That’s exactly what Littlearth founder, Ava DeMarco, is striving for. She and her partner, Rob
Brandegee, started the company almost 10 years ago in the basement of their home.
Most entrepreneurs begin with an idea for a product. But Ava says they were inspired by
curbside shopping expeditions.
“We got old inner tubes and just went out and scrounged around for hub caps and license plates
and we’d bring all these found objects into our house and figure out how we could make them
into products with the equipment we had.”
Those strange materials have led to some pretty unusual items. For instance, there are purses
made out of old license plates. First, the plates are shaped into a cylinder. Then they’re closed
with a clasp. And plugged on either end with motorcycle hubcaps. They also make hair brushes
out of bicycle handlebars – the kind with tassels hanging off the end.
These days, the company sells its products in more than 2,000 stores across the U.S.
But no matter how much they grow, Ava says they’ll always start with a cool piece of trash.
“I like the whole idea of taking things out of the waste stream and making stuff that isn’t just like, ‘Oh, you made that at home,’ but it takes it beyond that and it’s just an amazing, unique, one of a
kind thing that’s really beautiful.”
“This clock was a chrome lampshade. That’s the cage of a fan. This is a clock made out of an old
Patti Smythe gives a tour of her store, The Garbage Palace in Toronto. She calls herself a dumpster diver. And while she runs a smaller business than Littlearth, her mission is the same – to
transform trash into treasure.
“These are our barbie angels and in the summer they’re called glamour barbies, so with old barbie dolls, we transform them into treetops. You put them on top of your Christmas tree. So that’s
what happens when Barbie dies. She becomes an angel.”
Smythe’s store is packed floor to ceiling with works of garbage art. There are the lamps made out
of old kettles and baking pans. Vinyl records are melted into vases. And broken chairs are
turned into tables. One has a giant film canister on top. Another is covered with a mosaic made
from broken plates. And, as a last resort, just about anything can be turned into a clock – the blade of a saw, a shoe tree or even a vintage blender.
Smythe says it’s not just about making money, it’s about inspiring others to do the same.
“I’d like to change people’s views. It isn’t garbage. We’re such a wasteful society: ‘Ugh, throw it out, we’ll get a new one,’ that kind of attitude. I’m trying to change that. It’s like, don’t throw it
out, make it into something else, you know?”
Smythe says she redirects literally tons of post-consumer waste every year. She keeps about a
quarter of what she finds and donates the rest to teachers to use in their art classes. At Littlearth,
Ava DeMarco recycles about 40 tons of rubber and 60 thousand license plates each year. Both
women say they love the thrill of discovering quirky items on the sidewalk. And they hope to
convince people to take a second look at their garbage and appreciate its hidden potential.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.