When Jen Carlson and her husband Josh Shear reunited in Nebraska after going to high school in the state together, they eventually married and decided they’d build a straw-bale house. “We were looking for green materials, and at this point in 1999, in the middle of the country, there was nothing going on for green building,” she recalls. “So we decided to start a business carrying green building supplies.”
For a while, they sourced other people’s sustainable materials, which were, for the most part, imported. But when a stockpile of scrap paper laminates from the fabrication installation they were doing at the time accumulated, they adapted it into a new tile product called Slate-ish, which can be used in place of natural stone, ceramic tile, and even wallpaper—all 100% recycled material, handmade in the USA. They’ve now expanded their offerings to include textiles (Denimite and Marblus, made from blue jeans and recycled cotton-poly scrap, respectively) and paper fiber (Magazite and Billium, made from magazines and US currency), all created in a small shop in Lincoln, Nebraska. We chatted with Carlson, who shares many hats with her husband in the business, to learn more.
gb&d: Was Denimite the first product you made under Iris Industries?
Carlson: Denimite was the first. When you look at the textile industry, it’s enormous worldwide. Our current mindset is that clothing is sort of a throwaway thing, so there’s a huge market for textiles, generally speaking. If you have something that somebody uses and it goes to a thrift store and it sells, that’s great. If it doesn’t sell or if it’s not in good enough condition to be sold, then you can’t make it into new clothing again, so it hits the end of its life. We don’t want to use something that’s still useful to somebody else if we can help it. If we’re stopping it from being able to be used because we’re putting it into our product and it still has another version or two of its life it can go through, then we try and steer clear of that if we can. There are some other really interesting composites made in the world, and it’s hard because there are things where they’re interrupting a recycling stream to make their product. So once they’ve encased it in whatever they’re encasing it in, it can’t be recycled anymore, so we’re trying to stay away from that aspect of things.
gb&d: I understand that the binding, adhesive, ink removal, etc. in magazines is all quite tricky to recycle. Did you know that going in and decide you were going to figure out a way to do it yourselves or did you decide you wanted to work with magazines and later found these difficulties? How did you navigate that?
Carlson: The way that we research raw materials is that it all sort of goes hand-in-hand. First we have to make sure we can get a clean stream of the waste materials, and the difficult thing about magazines is when all of your recycling containers, including magazines and newspapers and everything, goes to the recycling, they don’t separate that in a way that’s useful to us. It’s all mixed together. So trying to get just magazines is much harder than it sounds like it should be, so we have to con- sider some of those logistics like how we can collect it and where it’s going to come from. At the same time, we’re researching issues with the material, where and how it’s recycled, what the useful life of that is before it gets to us, etc. There’s a research phase, and sometimes we’ll run some test products.
gb&d: Billium really jumped out at me as being incredibly interesting. How did you arrange to get that shredded currency to be sent to you?
Carlson: Years ago, there was another company that has since gone out of business that was making a product with shredded currency, so we knew that the product existed through our green retail days. There’s definitely a process. You have to apply and tell them what you’re using it for. We had to contact the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Once you get approval, you’re on your own to go talk to the Federal Reserve Banks—there are a handful around the country and they all work differently and independently, so we knew there was no way that this was going to go super easily. We did end up getting ahold of the person that runs that portion of the bank and was super helpful and loved the idea of recycling because they were literally just sending that down the street to a burn-waste facility.
gb&d: What are some examples of some things you thought would maybe be a golden idea to turn into a composite that didn’t pan out?
Carlson: So we’re in Nebraska, and this is the corn husker state, so we talk to the University of Nebraska on the campus that deals with a lot of the agricultural aspects of things. We talked to them about what types of materials we could get, which included cornhusks, and that sounded awesome. So we took the cornhusks from them after that meeting and came back, and Josh made a few samples out of it. It looked just like OSB—a common building material that’s used all the time. It’s not a super pricey product at all because it’s used for sheeting and flooring. It just didn’t look pretty or interesting anyway, so we decided against that one.
gb&d: What are some other materials you’re hoping to use?
Carlson: Well, we got other raw material in the line of things we’d like to introduce. One of the products we started to make with our other four early selections was one made of sunflower seed shells. And the material itself is amazing, and it really looks very interesting; it’s very organic and natural looking. The hard part about it is that when we’re sourcing sunflower seed shells, the last batch that we got had so many seeds still in the shells. So that product has taken the back seat while we figure out how we’re going to do that because we can’t introduce a product that has so many seeds that it’s affecting the material.
gb&d: I understand the company is just a couple of years old, have you begun to sell the products yet?
Carlson: Yes, we have. Whole Foods in Chicago opened a couple of stores that used Denimite and Magazite. We’ve had a couple of local banks use materials here, too. We’ve had a lot of interest internationally and are in the process of shipping materials to the UK, although we hope to soon get into production over there rather than shipping it.