Rubber, fashion and a greener gift to give

10 years of making accessories out of inner tubes

Handbag by English Retreads
Photo by Robin Hill

As she floated down Boulder Creek on a summer afternoon in 2002, Heather English says, she realized that the smooth black rubber of her inner tube might be just the thing to satisfy her search for a vegan handbag. Her hunt for one in Boulder had yielded no results, so when the idea came to her, she immediately ran with it, not knowing that one bag would turn into an entire business.

English’s products are hand-made from recycled inner tubes, and she uses her business as a means to connect her environmentally friendly outlook with the city she loves.

English’s love of animals and the environment drove her to make a decision not to wear leather, but when she searched for a new hand bag free of the pitfalls of a fashion industry that is often “so toxic and wasteful,” as she says, no one seemed to have one, so she made one herself.

“I had this inner tube, and I went down to McGuckin, bought a rivet gun and some rivets and put this bag together,” English says. “People kept asking about it and my friends wanted them, so I kind of fell into this accidentally.”

From there she jumped into a new crafting company, despite the fact that, as English says, “I didn’t know how to sew and I didn’t have any design experience.”

The process of turning used inner tubes into upscale accessories is not an easy one.

“It’s a pretty rigorous process,” English says. “It’s dirty, it’s smelly, it’s greasy, it’s round.”

After picking up inner tubes from truck stops and bike shops throughout Colorado, the rubber is power washed, cut into pieces, and washed with an environmentally friendly degreaser in an industrial washing machine. The products are shined and finished with an eco-friendly tire protectant.

Looking back on that first handbag, English says, “I still have it. It’s not so nice.”

Over the past 10 years, English has streamlined the process and expanded greatly from the simple bag she made on a whim.

English Retreads produces a variety of accessories including key chains, wallets, belts, cuff bracelets and laptop sleeves. Several different colors of lining add brightness to the accessories, including pumpkin, scarlet and English Retreads’ newest, plum. Her products range from $9 to $148, and can be found primarily online, though some of her accessories are sold through vendors across the country.

Business has expanded to the point that English no longer has to do the actual sewing. A manufacturing team in East Boulder spends roughly five weeks crafting each product, while English continues to design.

Each month, English Retreads sells about 250 items. Over the 10 years the company has been in business, roughly 25,000 truck inner tubes have been reclaimed, sparing landfills around 80,000 cubic-feet of non-degradable material, according to English.

Robin Hill, office manager at English Retreads, says that coming in for a day of work doesn’t feel much like work.

“She’s so down to earth and passionate about her product,” Hill says. “For example, if a customer calls with an issue about one of the products, she tries really hard to fix it so it doesn’t just go sit in a landfill somewhere. She really does care.”

Sitting in landfills, is in fact, one of the worst places for scrap tires and inner tubes to sit. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 27 million scrap tires are estimated to be disposed of in landfills or monofills each year, and according to the Clean Air Council, such amounts of heat retaining rubber can cause fires that can burn for up to eight months, all the while emitting toxins.

English attributes her own success to people who gave her the same chance she is trying to give others.

“I’ve been in business for 10 years because I’ve had a lot of help from amazing advisors who volunteer their know-how to help start-ups thrive,” she says.

Her message for both life and business is simple: “Be conscious. Know what you’re doing and do it with a purpose.”

Perhaps the best boost after 10 years in the business is that she’s seen other companies crop up with similar ideas for reusing materials.

“When I went into business in 2002, I didn’t know of any companies making fashionable handbags out of reclaimed materials, certainly not out of up-cycled inner tubes,” she says. “Over the years, more have popped up. It’s great to see because that means consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of sustainability and creating a demand for it.”

Other gifts from repurposed materials

BottleHood: Repurposed glassware and wine barrels. Products include jewelry, dishes, glasses, furniture, lights and vases. They have a store in Superior and go to Colorado markets and fairs.

Boulder Design: Glassblower Lindsey Bricker melts used wine and beer bottles to make trays suitable for hors d’oeuvres and decorative flourishes.

Green Guru Gear: Uses recycled bike tubes, banners, wetsuits and other materials to make bags, bike gear and accessories.

Nature Inspired Jewelry: Jewelry Greg DeMark collects used jewelry to be melted down, refined and used in new pieces shaped in the images of iconic mountains in Colorado and wildlife.

Sewn: All clothing from one of the lines “pearl clothing” is made entirely recycled and restyled clothing for men and women. Sewn, 18 South Broadway, Denver, 303-832-1493

Take2: Used clothing and fabric scraps get a new life as multi-season, multi-size, one of a kind clothes, handbags, pillows and accessories.

Waste Knot Woodworks: Furniture made out of reclaimed wood.