A flat tire in the middle of a ride can be one of the more annoying aspects of cycling, but have you ever pondered what happens to the waste created by a spent tube? If that tube makes its way to Green Guru in Boulder, Colorado, it could become a beautiful backpack, cycling bag or wallet.
You know you’re approaching Green Guru headquarters when you see spare bicycle parts attached to an exterior building that sits almost directly on top of a bike path (and across the street from a distillery). In the parking lot is a shipping container full of used bicycle tubes, wet suits, camping tents, spent climbing ropes, old billboard wraps, scraps from waterproof Jeep tops, used event banners and even leftover clippings from the state factory that makes reflective street signs.
The tubes make up some of the most-recognized products, including the small wallets carried by almost everyone who works in the bicycle industry. They arrive in large bins collected from about 50 bike shops across Colorado. Each bin overflows with about 60 pounds of dusty rubber from 120-150 tubes. It takes a shop 1-2 months to fill a bin, depending on the season. The tubes are refreshed in a battered old washing machine housed in the office. A light detergent paired with Simple Green and followed by a homemade mix of olive oil and lemon juice cleans and shines the rubber. Every resulting item is designed and prototyped in Boulder and produced in either Longmont or Louisville, two nearby cities.
Green Guru was founded in 2007 by Davidson Lewis and Justin Daugherty. Lewis said he was a scavenger as a child, regularly salvaging half-broken bikes to pick parts from and eventually end up with whole bikes to sell. His father was an artist and provided space in the garage to work on the frames and components he collected on trash day. From there, Lewis ended up fixing flats and emptying trash cans in a bike shop before heading to the Virginia Tech School of Architecture Major Industrial Design.
It was at Virginia Tech that Lewis began to understand the environmentally disruptive nature of man-made materials, particularly plastics. It hit him that he didn’t just want to design “more landfill fodder.” When he was assigned a project that required an environmentally friendly design, Lewis came up with the idea to turn old bicycle tubes into consumer goods. He began experimenting with his first tube messenger bags, wallets and backpacks in 1999.
For a while after college, Lewis worked on designing everything from housewares to skateboards, but never gave up the idea of recycled bicycle goods. In 2005, he began working with a backpack designer helping to repair old gear before finally launching Green Guru two years later. He started with backpacks, which was the biggest and broadest market. Four years ago, Green Guru began expanding to bike-specific bags. Now, special items such as panniers, saddlebags and a handlebar cooler are some of the best sellers. There’s even a line of women-focused products, like a clutch that attaches to bike handlebars, called Green Goddess.
Making the products in the U.S. is extremely important to the company. The design process revolves largely around user feedback. Green Guru is present at bike expos across the country specifically for that reason, including the Five Boro Bike Tour in New York City, a favorite of Lewis’. There, he listens for product improvement ideas and feedback from “normal people, real people and a general audience.”
Lewis also said it’s not easy to regularly dream up new designs that haven’t been done before, which is why the company focuses on having fun and being creative. The public feedback is why Green Guru products generally work off the bike as well as on, and is why small, new touches appear regularly, such as metal grommets on bike bags that can accept locks.
To help facilitate new designs, Green Guru has teamed up with Metropolitan State University of Denver to work on semester-long projects with industrial design classes and to host design competitions that ask the students for their take on bicycle products. Two Green Guru items—the Freerider Pannier and Hauler Bike Pack—both came from university students. Green Guru donated money to the classes, then hosted Kickstarter campaigns to get each of the winning products off the ground. It also gave a percentage of the money back to the student designers.
Green Guru doesn’t just make products; they’re also very involved in cycling culture and the business of being environmentally friendly. In the warmer months, you can join regular cruiser bike parties that leave the office after work and casually roam Boulder’s large network of paved bike paths. The company’s current expansion into the space next door will include a spot for a micro-brewer to operate.
Green Guru also donates a percentage of its profits to PeopleForBikes. It earned a “gold leader” designation from the Colorado Environmental Leadership Program and is a certified B Corporation, meaning the company has met standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
If you want to donate tires, you’re welcome to via the website, but most of Green Guru’s materials come from partnerships with major manufacturers and local bike shops. Of note, it does not work with old bicycle tires, which are extremely tough to deal with at scale and present logistical problems with transportation and storage. But, the company is always on the lookout for new materials to work with and Lewis is a man full of ideas who can talk a mile a minute. Look for new and unique, made-in-the-USA items to come from Green Guru at any time.