One time, Chris Tag came home with a 1969 Velocette motorcycle. Soon after, his wife watched him lug an industrial sewing machine into their attic.
By night he designs and creates handbags. By day he works in advertising.
Tag isn’t having a mid-life crisis. He’s saving the planet. One billboard at a time.
"It started three years ago I was working in advertising and I was doing a press check for an outdoor billboard campaign I just sold, and a gigantic piece had come off the printer. And it was printed incorrectly and I watched them cut it, drag it, throw it away I was literally dumbfounded they were going to take it and throw it in a landfill," Tag explained.
So he rescued that piece and brought it home, cut it up, and started making bags. Defy Bags was born.
"It’s born from defiance. It really comes from defying conventional wisdom that material can be used once and thrown away," he said.
It’s a niche area of fashion, but a widespread issue for recycling. About 25 million square meters or about 10,000 tons of billboard fabric waste is generated annually in the U.S. alone.
Once it hits the landfill, vinyl doesn’t break down and can even create larger issues, he said.
"And its oil-based, so a lot of fumes that will build up in a landfill there’s actually fires can start in landfills for not being vented properly," Tag explained.
"Vinyl is interesting because it can be recycled an infinite number of times, unlike paper that can be reused only seven times. So you can keep reusing it. But the problem is people just dump them in landfills so for us to recover and reuse with Defy Bags is a definite plus to the environment," said Jones.
When the vinyl becomes fashion in Tag’s new prototype shop -- now a basement in Wilmette -- his inspiration comes from books, clippings and print on actual billboards or truck tarps.
"I have tons of old ephemera books designed from Warhol to Lichtenstein. Classic graphical things. I create them on my computer, we often print on the back side of the billboard. It’s like a white canvas," he said.
Although Tag makes it easy for companies by cold-calling and asking to take their used billboard off their hands, versus watching it end up in the landfill, many just don’t share interest in his mission.
"Nine out of 10 said no," he said. "I think they perceived it as being more work. I had to find more people, like Michael at Digital Hub, that believed in the cause and had the same concern for the environment."
For now, Tag said he will go anywhere and collect as many billboards as he possibly can.
"I've driven to Milwaukee, picked up 6,000 pounds by myself carried them on my shoulder. There has been a lot of blood sweat and tears but it’s worth all the hard work."
With straps made from reclaimed parachute straps and car seat belts, the bags are not just recycled billboards. And it's not a new passion for Tag.
"Since I was in college I was always an avid recycler so this was a natural transition to me, a no-brainer," he said.
And now it is way beyond the making of a few little bags.
"These materials we’ve gotten accustomed to throwing away doesn’t make sense and just take s a little education to say you can make this into something cool," he said.