Do you ever think about the afterlife of billboards? Jenelle Malbrough certainly does, and after discovering that over 10,000 tons of discarded billboards end up landfills, she decided to take action. Her company, First World Trash, salvages billboards and old seat belts to make an array of water resistant, tear proof bags and accessories that are built to last. Because the products are made from re-purposed materials, each features a unique color scheme, graphics, images and fonts that speak of its history. We caught up with the Long Island City-based designer at the New York International Gift Fair (NYIGF) and decided to find out more.
What began as a personal fascination for creating hand made objects from found materials was largely inspired by Malbrough’s upbringing. “All the furniture in our house, my Paw Paw made. My grandma would reupholster things or make our clothes. Making things goes deep into my family.” In fact, over one Thanksgiving, Marlbrough took a trip to the local junkyard, found some old seat belts, learned how to sew from her grandmother, and the wheels started turning.
Since launching First World Trash in 2009, Malbrough’s ingenuity and dedication is helping to reuse a small part of the 250 million square feet of commercial vinyl that is manufactured for billboards in the U.S. each year. Most billboards that appear on the side of the highway are manufactured to last eight years but enjoy only a month or two of life as a billboard. Upon learning this, Malbrough searched endlessly for how she could get her hands on one.
After over a year of inquiry, she secured her first billboard through a company that owned advertising space. She has since built relationships with a variety of other billboard and advertising companies and her company has grown. Her product line includes messenger bags, commuter totes, portfolios, laptop cases, and the latest designs are the “Beach Tote” and the “Lazy Boy,” a backpack designed specially for bikers.
“I saw this hole. There’s this stuff but it just doesn’t look good and I don’t want to carry it,” explained Marlbrough. “It screams green or eco. While it is, that’s not all that it is. It has so much more of a story to it. So I put my design twist on it.” Her designs certainly have gained attention as she already has several corporate clients and plans to expand operations.
Beyond good design, Marlbrough’s company is really about reinventing how we think about our surrounding resources. “There’s a real gap between manufacturing and waste management,” stated Malbrough. A progressive individual, the young designer is in talks with the City to see how the company could enter into a more formal partnership as a recycling resource. She sees potential for New York, saying “[It] actually could become the first city to say ‘if you’re going to advertise here, that’s great but let’s dispose of it properly.’” Perhaps we will the see the birth of a program similar to Wearable Collections but for billboard vinyl.
While First World Trash is currently focusing on bags and accessories, Malbrough sees many other potential uses for the discarded vinyl. For instance, she mentioned one company that sends their scraps to Africa to be used for siding and roofing on houses. “It’s a great material. I think there’s a lot of ways it can be used and we should really do something with it,” explained Malbrough. We’ll be excited to see what comes next from this innovative company with big dreams and the motivation and drive to achieve them.
All images © Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat