Sunday, September 03, 2006

Garbage To Gold

Eli Reich Story

Two years ago, Eli Reich was a mechanical engineer consultant for a Seattle wind energy company when his messenger bag was stolen. The environmentally conscious Reich, who rode his bike to work every day, decided that instead of buying a new one, he would simply fashion another bag out of used bicycle-tire inner tubes that were lying around his house.

Soon compliments on his sturdy black handmade messenger bag turned into requests. "That was the catalyst," says Reich, who obtained a business license, gave up his day job, and quickly launched Alchemy Goods in the basement of his apartment building. The company's motto: "Turning useless into useful."

For a slew of new entrepreneurs, garbage is not just a matter of personal opinion, it is, ahem, their business. In other words, they're creating new companies out of other people's junk.

While innovation has always been the entrepreneur's trademark, a growing interest in the green movement is propelling small business owners to create new products and services that also happen to be inventive recycling solutions for the country's vast waste heaps. "The sustainability and restoring of our environment are providing opportunities in many fields of small business," says John Stayton, co-founder and director of the Green MBA program at San Francisco's New College of California.

Reich's Alchemy Goods grew quickly. At the outset, he worked solo, making about 5 to 10 bags a month. Now there are three employees. "In our first year, we probably made about 125 bags," he says, "since last year we've probably made another 1,000."

Initially marketing consisted of word of mouth, and the products were sold on the company's Web site. Today the bags can be found in retail outlets in Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania, California, Montana, and two stores in Japan.

And the products, made from materials found at local junkyards and bike shops, have grown, too. Alchemy now offers different styles. The classic messenger bag ($148) and the smaller Haversack bag ($88) are made from recycled inner tubes and seat belts. The Adbag, a $30 tote, is fashioned from old mesh outdoor advertising banners.

Reich says he is looking to broaden his product line and expand his distribution channels. "After we started the company, I didn't see a lot of other recycling products," he says. "I've learned quite a bit about companies taking similar innovative approaches to product design. It's a niche now, but it's a growing field. People are becoming more aware of what products are made of and where they go after they are done owning them."

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash