Matt Mahler is descended from trappers in the Mississippi delta, where he learned an environmental ethic perhaps foreign to the other coasts, but as real as a hunter's sense. But like many kids he took for granted the hunting and fishing excursions that took him into the deep wilds of southern Louisiana's coastal wetlands, where an individual can encounter wildlife interacting as if a human weren't quietly observing.
"It's very peaceful," he recalled recently in a phone interview. "I mean, at night when we would turn the lights off and you just see the sky. You would just see a lot of nothing. It can't help but alter the way you see things the rest of your life."
It's not a place you'd expect to find inspiration for high-design messenger, bike seat, duffel and other bags popular in far-off cities, but that's where Mahler drew early inspiration for his year-old business, Tierra Ideas, which makes stylish bags from the waste streams of industries, major and minor. (Full disclosure: Tierra Ideas donated a few bags for The Daily Green's 2010 Heart of Green Awards.)
For Mahler, it didn't take BP's oil spill encroaching on his home to become an environmentalist. It was something more pedestrian (or at least pedestrian-friendly), an eco-friendly neighborhood that his sister moved to, the Earth Haven ecovillage in Black Mountain, N.C. The resourcefulness of a community striving to live a low-impact lifestyle struck him in a way that even training in environmental engineering had not. He started reading voraciously newspapers, magazines, trade publications anything that would teach him about the often bizarre ways we use and dispose of stuff. He soon found his calling, in a trash heap. The global trash heap.
His first success was finding that Performance Bikes, a cycling shop was tossing roughly 12 inner tubes a day from each of its 90 stores nationwide, that inner tubs make handsome bags... and that the staff hated wasting all that material.
"The guys fixing the bikes, they were like, 'Finally!' almost like they felt guilty throwing it away," Mahler said. "They keep putting other products in front of us the tires, the gears. It's up to us to come up with new products and ideas."
Mahler now works with 15 Performance Bikes shops in the vicinity of his home in North Carolina, and he's experimenting with other materials sails from boats, car headliner (those rubber thingies between a car door and the frame), seat belts and his biggest catch yet, the fabric from seats on Delta airlines. Turns out that, by government decree, an airplane seat can only be washed 10 times before the fabric must be discarded, because the flame retardant chemicals lose their potency. Mahler has about 5,300 pounds of used fabric, about one-third of Delta's waste during its most recent seating overhaul, and he's using it to make a variety of bags (like the travel purse at right and the messenger bag above). It all goes into new products: bags today, and who-knows-what tomorrow.
"The audience is definitely out there a lot of it is in the West and Northwest," he said. "But that message of environmentalism seems to be spreading. I'm seeing more people talk about environmental issues, and I'm seeing people choosing to buy environmental products."
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