Words by Emily McMackin
Near the ancient seaside city of Valencia along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, bottles and glasses grace the tables of homes and sidewalk cafes. They are filled with the fruity wines, citrusy cocktails, and the region’s favorite—horchata. But when the evening ends, these glasses, once filled with memories and joy, are found chipped, crushed, or simply discarded, finding their way to landfills, where they sit decomposing for thousands of years. This is not a story about those pieces. This is a story of those lucky exceptions that are not lost but found.
These found pieces make their way to a family of third-generation glassblowers in central Spain. There, artisans melt the crushed glass, or cullet, and use a steel blowpipe to breathe new life into the molten remnants, shaping them into vases, votives, pitchers, and kitchen containers. The glassware then embarks on the next leg of its journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the Nashville, Tennessee, home of Newly, a startup that makes home accessories out of recycled materials.
“Each of our products has a similar kind of environmental story about how it is made. And it’s not just a story; it’s actually true,” says Michael Graziano, Newly’s mission director and co-founder.
Sifting through product samples at Weld Nashville, a former boot factory turned co-working space for creatives in the city’s revitalized Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, Michael lifts a bottle-shaped glass canister up to the light and marvels at the pool of turquoise glinting from the bottom that reflects its recycled roots.
“Wabi-sabi,” he says. “You know that term? It’s a Japanese word that means the perfection is in the imperfection. Everything we make has a little wabi-sabi. If you look at the bases of our glassware, they're not perfectly uniform. But that's because they're handmade in a sustainable way. So that gives them natural variability.”
The same is true of Newly’s chef’s boards, which are salvaged from hardwood beams of centuries-old, dilapidated buildings torn down in Budapest. Milled into cutting boards and shipped to a Georgia broker who supplies them to Newly, each board retains the imprint of its wood origins. Subtle variations in the grain add character, and the maturity of the wood makes it stronger and less likely to warp.
Most consumer manufacturers prefer virgin materials—natural resources harvested directly from the earth—because they are cheaper to use and easier for churning out carbon copies of items. But making these products from recycled glass and reclaimed wood saves raw materials and energy and removes tons of carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air.
“The impact is real, even though we don’t have much control over where it happens,” Michael says. “But we all live on one planet. Improving things in one place is good for everywhere.”
Unfolding a sleek blue and white-striped blanket from Newly’s collection of reversible throws, Michael explains that the threads come from bales of tattered t-shirts and textiles throughout Spain that are broken down by their fibers and colors, then spooled together in Barcelona with plastic from recycled water bottles. Not only does this eliminate the need for synthetic dyes and color fasteners, but each blanket diverts a dozen plastic water bottles from landfills.
“If you made this blanket from virgin materials, it would take 2,250 gallons of water,” Michael says. “In our process, it takes zero.”
Newly ships the poly-cotton thread and design specifications to Los Angeles, where the blankets are woven into a lightweight blend people find surprisingly cozy.
“People love the blankets,” Michael says. “When they see them, they’re like, ‘Oh, these are so soft.’ Then you tell them the story about them, and they're like, ‘What?’ They can’t believe it.”
Proving that recycled goods can be just as durable, chic, and accessible as conventional products was what inspired Michael and his Newly co-founders Barrett Ward, Joel Griffith, Jesse Sproul, and Matt Lehman to start the e-commerce venture four years ago.
The concept came up over beers between Michael, a filmmaker; Joel, a nonprofit marketing consultant; and Barrett, founder of another Nashville social enterprise FashionABLE, which sells bags and jewelry handcrafted by disadvantaged women. Within their own circle, they had influenced each other to recycle more, so while kicking around ideas for a mission-driven side gig, they thought about applying that practice to consumer durables.
“So much of what’s created is disposable, so we saw an opportunity to figure that out,” Michael says.
Barrett brought Matt, a graphic designer, and Jesse, a music industry executive, into the fold, and the men decided to fulfill a need in the sustainable goods market for versatile, everyday home accessories with a modern, aesthetic appeal.
Achieving that vision took them two years and around the world in search of vendors capable of sustainable production in small batches. After plenty of pushback and much persistence, they eventually pieced together a supply chain across two continents. Acrylic for their transparent trays and cookbook holders, for example, comes from Italian lucite recycled from scraps of signs, frames, and storage bins near Milan. But they found a Myrtle Beach couple to help them design the products so the acrylic corners could be shaped by hand instead of welded together with chemical solvent.
Since launching their products through newly.com in 2016, the Newly team has stayed true to what Michael describes as their two non-negotiables: items must be beautifully made and 100 percent recycled. When samples of their canisters arrived with cork stoppers made from tree bark, they replaced them with custom-made lids sourced from reclaimed wood in the area. They have even reduced their own carbon footprint by finding local woodworkers to fashion their new serving boards out of worn barnwood from Tennessee and Kentucky. Even Newly’s packaging is recyclable, down to the biodegradable box tape and wood pulp stuffing.
“You don’t have to be an environmentalist to enjoy the products,” Michael says. “But if you are, Newly creates an opportunity to shop more responsibly.”
Michael admits that while launching this kind of venture may have been easier in the Northeast or the West Coast, where environmental fervor is stronger, having a Nashville base allows Newly to reach conscientious consumers who may not normally consider buying recycled products.
“There are tons of Southerners who recognize the beauty of creation and care about it, but would never call themselves environmentalists,” he says.
Ultimately, Michael and his buddies envision expanding Newly by taking more ownership over their supply chain so they can personalize their impact in communities.
“Imagine if we could collect all the glass that gets thrown away on Broadway here in Nashville every weekend and reuse it to make beautiful drinkware,” he says. “And then that could provide jobs for people locally. That's the dream.”