These handbags are just built different

For entrepreneur Kresse Wesling, one of the most telling aspects of a culture is the things people throw away.

The waste generated by the city of London, England, told of a 100-million-ton problem of single-use items -- an issue that towered above her own capabilities.

"I knew I couldn't solve 100-million-ton-a-year of problem, so I needed to kind of scale it down and see if there was some specific thing," Wesling, 44, told AccuWeather in an interview.

That specific thing, she found, was discarded fire hoses.

A London fire hose (Elvis & Kresse)

"It's such a beautiful, lovable, historic material, and spent 25 years saving lives, and I think it's quite difficult not to fall in love with it," Wesling said.

Over the course of a year, London would produce around 3 tons of waste a year just from getting rid of the fire hoses that reach the end of their health and safety life of 25 years, according to Wesley. However, she added, they can produce up to 10 tons of this waste during a "bad year," or a year with more fires than others.

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Composed of two layers of natural rubber that sandwich a woven nylon core, the hoses made in the United Kingdom are durable, but their multiple layers cannot be shredded, melted down and remade into new hoses.

But they can be made into durable, if not fashionable, purses and bags.

A duffle bag made by Elvis & Kresse, a company that upcycles fire hoses into accessories such as handbags. (Elvis & Kresse)

In 2005, Wesling co-founded the London-based company Elvis & Kresse with the purpose of upcycling fire hoses and decreasing the amount of waste that goes into the nation's landfills.

Each product is carefully crafted, the hoses meticulously cut to reduce any leftover material. With each fire hose generally being about 10 centimeters wide (nearly 4 inches), the company's designs are largely based on a 10-centimeter template, be it a belt's width or a bag's strap, to use all of the material for a zero-waste cutting process.

For the tiny scraps that don't make the cut, the company keeps them in a box and then uses them for other creative projects such as tiling a floor, crafting napkin rings and even utilizing the material as part of a chandelier.

Kresse Wesling (left) and James Henrit (right), who co-founded the London-based company Elvis & Kresse. (Elvis & Kresse)

In California, the intense wildfire seasons ensure that Steffen Kuehr, 46, doesn't run short of supplies for his own business, TekTailor.

A Santa Rosa Bay-based sewing business, TekTailor has been around since 2015, though the sewing facility itself has been running for over 30 years.

"It was a family-run business. I took it over from my in-laws and basically turned it from their previous business into something that I consider a little bit more sustainable moving forward and incorporating it as a legal benefit corporation and becoming a certified green business," Kuehr said.

Steffen Kuehr has made a business out of upcycling materials from fire hoses to burlap and billboards. (Steffen Kuehr)

For a few years now, Kuehr has worked with local entities from fire departments to a community college that has a firefighting program, taking in their damaged fire hoses.

The Kincade Fire in 2019 burned through more than 77,000 acres of northern California landscape, gaining infamy as thousands fled from the flames in the dark amid mass power outages. After the two-week-long battle to contain the fire in Sonoma County, at least 2,500 pounds of damaged fire hose were given to TekTailor to upcycle. The company received nearly 5,000 pounds of damaged fire hose after the Glass Fire, which charred more than 67,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties in Northern California during September and October of 2020.

Truckloads of damaged fire hoses delivered to TekTailor in Sonoma County, California, to be upcycled rather than left in a landfill. (Steffen Kuehr)

From the sturdy material he's created floor mats, key chain accessories, dog leashes, belts and even coasters.

"This stuff has helped us save our homes and forests and cities, so we figured we should try and keep it around rather than send it to the landfill," Kuehr said of what he called material with a "heroic past."

Filled not only with single-use items, but materials that are slow to breakdown, landfills have presented an environmental problem from the gases released to the space they take up, Wesling said.

"There's sort of an awareness of what the long-term impact of the gas might be, whether that be just coming up through the ground or let's say the liquids that leach into the soil and then get into the water supply," Wesling said. "But basically it's just a waste of space and a waste of materials."

One burn area or puncture hole in a fire hose can mean the end of its career fighting fires, sending the whole 50 to 100 feet of material to a landfill.

"By keeping it out of the landfill and repurposing it, not only do people own a piece of something that has emotional value to them or local touch, but it's also something that's just going to last for a long time," Kuehr said.

A set of coasters from TekTailor made out of decommissioned and upcycled fire hoses. (Steffen Kuehr)

Both Wesling and Kuehr have taken up materials other than firehoses to upcycle, from discarded leather to billboard vinyl and grain and feed bags.

"[Reusing materials is] something that we fail at globally," Wesling said. "We need to eliminate singe-use everything, and we need to do that relatively quickly, so it's something I've always been fascinated by, and I suppose equally horrified by at the same time."

In an effort to also support the communities that they receive materials from, both Elvis & Kresse and TekTailor make an effort to give back to their respective communities.

At TekTailor, 10% of all the fire hose product sales are donated to a local nonprofit, Forestry Crab Feed, founded by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) and the Sonoma Ranger Unit that helps support local firefighters, whether they've lost their homes to fires or have medical bills to cover.

"It's kind of closing the loop here between keeping the material alive, but also helping those guys who actually use it to protect our communities," Kuehr said.

Men unloading damaged fire hoses from a truck for TekTailor to upcycle into items like dog leashes, coasters, belts and floor mats. (Steffen Kuehr)

Elvis & Kresse donates 50% of its profits to charities related to the fire hose and scrap leather that it upcycles, from the Fire Fighters Charity to Barefoot College and contributing to scholarships for women to train as solar engineers.

"Donating 50% of our profits to charity is just the only way that I can see companies should exist in the world," Wesling said. "We should exist to do good and to be good and to be part of our communities."

But while she has made a business out of upcycling fire hoses, this is not the endgame for Wesling.

"I certainly dream of a day when hoses are not how we put out fires," Wesling said. "I think there are interesting technologies on the horizon that are safer for people and probably more efficient at putting out fires, and then that's one less waste for me to worry about."

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