For years, the massive advertising banners around Sonoma Raceway sat in storage after they wore out their welcome — whether from a sponsorship change or the wear and tear of the various motorsports around the 2.5-mile racetrack.
Now, those same vinyl banners are being turned into material for messenger bags, duffel bags, laptop sleeves and other items thanks to a Santa Rosa company.
The company, Sonoma-USA, launched a Kickstarter campaign Wednesday to show off its new products and help build business.
“We live in a throwaway society,” said Steffen Kuehr, founder and chief executive officer of Sonoma-USA, which is in the process of becoming a Certified B Corporation. “Most of these vinyl banners will stay around for thousands of years.”
Kuehr noted Americans in 2013 generated about 254 million tons of trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
However, U.S. citizens recycled and composted about 87 million tons of this material, roughly a 34-percent recycling rate.
“We have to start looking at how to make a difference on a bigger scale,” said Kuehr.
Kuehr is more well-known in the local business community serving as chief operating officer for Bijan’s Protective Equipment, which makes everything from military duffel bags to dog raincoats.
In 2014, Bijan produced 10,000 reusable shopping bags for the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency in advance of a plastic-bag ban that went into effect.
For the raceway project, Sonoma-USA took about 2,000 pounds of banner material to use as an initial production run, including those sponsored by companies such as Verizon. In turn, they were converted to bags that would not be out of place in hipster urban areas such as Brooklyn or San Francisco, with a laptop sleeve costing $44 and duffel bag $94.
“Some of these banners had race-inspired motifs … we have the ability to create the racing aspect for customers who are strong racing fans,” Kuehr said. “At the same time, not everyone wants to walk around with a race car on his back.”
Raceway officials appreciated the offer, especially as Sonoma-USA will donate 5 percent of its sales to the Sonoma chapter of the Speedway Children’s Charities. It also saved the cost of transporting the material to a landfill.
“It’s a great opportunity for us, being a business that you would not normally associate as a company, that would put a priority on sustainability,” said Steve Page, Sonoma Raceway president and general manager. “We hate to send them to landfill … we hadn’t found a good use for them.”
In fact, the Raceway has taken steps to become more sustainable, installing a large solar panel program and having 3,000 sheep on its property to graze grass and maintain fire lanes.
When Kuehr presented the idea to recycle the banners to Raceway officials, Page said “it was just a lightbulb moment for us.”
If the program does well, Kuehr said he could envision using other materials from the raceway such as flags, ropes and tents. He could even see repurposing drivers’ racing suits.
“We could easily turn some of the race suits into fun bags, tote bags or other products,” he said. “Race suits are very durable. They are much softer to sew and work with than some of the vinyl material.”
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.