By DEBORAH BEHRENDS
NEWARK, Ill. — Their time spent at the Sublette Toy Show March 16-17 was pretty much like any craft show Janice and John Steel attend – they took home several bags of garbage.
That’s not so unusual for crafters. The unusual part is they turn that garbage, particularly aluminum soda pop and beer cans, into jewelry.
“They’re fun products to make. They make people smile. They make us smile. And we keep a few cans out of the landfills,” Janice Steel said.
Although the business has begun to pick up steam in recent months, Steel said she is no stranger to “upcycling” discarded materials. With a background in commercial real estate and development, she started making jewelry about 14 years ago as a creative outlet.
Her first project was a pair of earrings made from cut-up credit cards, using the MasterCard logo. “We collected expired gift cards or credit cards to make the jewelry,” she said.
After creating a few pieces from pop cans, she discovered “people started taking to it, recognizing the logo of their favorite brand. People went crazy for them, so I switched my medium,” Steel said.
“I don’t drink pop and neither does my husband. We would go out on bike rides and pick up cans. If we found five or six, it was good day,” she said with a laugh. “We joke that we’re cleaning up America one pop can at a time.”
Steel said about three years ago, one of the Chicago news stations did a piece on the business, and in the time it took the Steels to drive from Chicago back home, everything on their website at www.popcanjewelry.com was sold out.
“People started emailing, I had to increase all the quantities on my website, and we made jewelry around the clock for three or four days,” she said.
The husband and wife team work long hours to keep locations stocked, and she said they attend about 125 craft shows a year. “We can’t hire anyone yet, but we hope to be able to help veterans when we can hire people,” Steel said.
Along with the website, their jewelry is available in a number of locations, including Miller Coors brewery gift shops in Colorado and Wisconsin. One of the first local businesses to stock her jewelry was the Country Market in Sandwich, Ill.
“The beverage companies love our products. It’s second-generation free advertising for them, and it keeps waste from their products out of the landfills. A lot of big companies are pushing to be eco-friendly,” she said.
The Steels also sell their products at craft shows around northern Illinois. “Promoters see people coming in with bags of cans and know they’re looking for us,” Steel said.
And for their trouble, they get jewelry. “We call it ‘trash for treasures.’ When people bring in 30 big cans – Arizona Tea, for example – or 40 little ones, we give them $20 in jewelry. Of course the cans can’t be dented or crushed,” she cautioned.
For more information about her upcycled jewelry, visit their website or find “Pop Can Jewelry” on Facebook.