Protecting Your Tech with a Compostable Phone Case

Zero-waste, plastic-free compostable and recyclable phone case from Pela Case | Litterless

It’s no secret that our phones are full of metals and components that are toxic both to the planet and to workers. Some of the components of phones and other electronics can be recycled, but the process is difficult and hazardous. In addition to the obvious reasons like the hefty price tag for replacing it, these are good reasons to make sure you can keep your phone around for as long as possible.

My phone dates to last year, but when I see someone with an iPhone 5, I feel a frisson of recognition, and respect. I’m hoping that, three years hence, I’ll be that person too: the one with the outdated - but still perfectly functioning - phone model.

My phone is currently protected by the plastic case I bought when I first purchased my phone. The clear plastic is yellowing in places and peeling away in others, and I know eventually the case will have to end up in the landfill, like so many others. My partner, on the other hand, has been without a phone case for the past several months after his first case became unusable, and his phone has suffered for it. (For example: all photos taken with it must now be selfies, as the camera on the back chipped during a fall).

Zero-waste, plastic-free compostable and recyclable phone case from Pela Case | Litterless

Clearly, neither of these - the plastic case or going without - is a good option for those of us who want to both extend the lives of our phones and minimize our plastic footprint. So I was delighted when Pela Case reached out to offer us one of their compostable phone cases. I promptly turned it over to my case-less partner, whose phone is now more than amply protected with a new black case.

The phone cases are made of a starch-based biopolymer and “waste” flax straw, which means they’re compostable, even in backyard settings. (More on that here). Better yet, Pela also accepts their old cases back for recycling into new ones.

Pela Cases are also matte, not shiny, which makes them easier to grip and, in our experience, harder to drop. Though I’m still using my older - and perfectly serviceable - plastic phone case from another company, I’m jealous of my partner’s new case, and when mine finally bites the dust, will upgrade to a Pela of my own. 

They also offer phone cases for most new and old smartphones, so if you’ve been having trouble finding a case for your older model, they most likely have an option for you. (Here’s their full list of current cases available, under the “Shop” tab up top).

Zero-waste, plastic-free compostable and recyclable phone case from Pela Case | Litterless

If you’d like to purchase a Pela of your own, you can use the code LITTERLESS for 15% off your purchase.

(This post is sponsored by Pela Case, makers of compostable and sustainable phone cases. Thanks so much for reading and supporting my work on Litterless.)

Where to Donate Rubber Bands

Where to donate rubber bands for a zero waste home | Litterless

I'm giving up my beloved apartment next month, moving to a yet-to-be-determined new space (more on that later). Long store short: cue the decluttering. It's well-known that the question "Do I want to have to move this?" is a kick in the pants like no other, so with that in mind, I've been taking some time to clear out the backs of drawers, cull my closet a bit, and just generally pare down things not worth bringing to my next home.

Which brings me to rubber bands. As a child, rubber bands were a treasure, a step on the road to fulfilling dreams of making a record-breaking-sized rubber band ball. As an adult, I've found them both completely useful and then completely useless. Essential for holding together the bundle of kale I pick up at the grocery... and then what? I don't buy much packaged food any more, so their kitchen utility has plummeted to nil. Nor, of course, can I throw them away. Instead, they accumulate in the back of my silverware drawer in a brightly-colored heap, until something like an impending move spurs me to action.

Except for the fact that they land in a pile unused, the rubber bands that come home with me on greens and herbs and other things are fairly harmless. They're smaller than the plastic twist-tie with a plastic tag that bundles up some leafy greens, and more useful, too. Still, what is a zero waste blog if not an esoteric deep-dive into ways to avoid making trash out of small, daily types of items?

The only way to truly avoid the rubber bands that come on grocery goods is, I think, to shop at a farmers' market and ask the farmer right then and there if you can take the band off and give it back to them for reuse. During a Midwest winter, this isn't a method that I can wholly rely on: hence, they pile up.

Yesterday, I gathered up all that I could find and plopped them in a glass jar, ready to be donated. In that spirit, I thought it might be helpful to share my ideas for where to take them to be reused. Mostly, I just wanted to hear what you have to say on what you do with yours, too.

Where to donate rubber bands for a zero waste home | Litterless

A few ideas for where to take them:

-Ask around at the farmers' market. My local farmers' market is incredibly busy on weekends, so I haven't mustered up the courage to corner someone at one of the vegetable stands to ask if they could use a jar of reused rubber bands. I tend to wonder if their packing operations rely on having ones of only a similar size and shape, at any rate. If I don't return the band on the spot, chances are I won't bring it back to the market. But I applaud any of you who do!

-Stock your office supply cupboard. This is what I used to do with mine, but I was skeptical if they would actually end up getting reused. What do people do with rubber bands in an office setting, truly? And will they pick through the rubber band box to find the ones not printed with the word "kale" on them? Assuming so, I cast about for a different solution.

-Give 'em to a creative reuse center. Also known as secondhand craft supply stores, these spots specifically accept donations of used school, art, and office supplies. People can then come buy the supplies they need, like picking up a jar of secondhand rubber bands rather than purchasing a brand-new bag of them at an office supply store. My local spot here in Chicago is where I'll be taking this jar of rubber bands later this week.

-Find a school classroom in need of them. This is where I wanted to hear from you: any teachers out there able to chime in? Are rubber bands something you use in art projects or other school work? Are donations helpful, or are they not needed? I'd love to hear.

More ideas for using up or passing along rubber bands? Do you collect yours? What do you do with them?

Takeback Programs

Baggu zero waste resuable tote bags | Litterless

In San Fransisco a few weeks ago, we were visiting the Mission District and wandered into a Baggu store. Baggu makes those reusable totes that fold up into small squares and are quite light; I use mine nearly daily for errands or work. (You can see mine in action here, here, here, and here, if you're so inclined). I'd been wanting another one, and browsed their beautifully technicolored displays until I found one that I wanted - which, of course, was not technicolor itself, as I am a boring neutrals lover (I went with the solid teal shown near the right of the photograph below).

Baggu bags aren't recycled cotton, organic hemp, or anything extra sustainable in and of themselves. But, a bag in the hand is worth two in the bush, right? Being able to refuse single-use shopping bags depends on actually having a reusable one with you when you need it, and unfortunately bags made from natural fibers tend to be heavier and bulkier and not as conducive to carrying around just-in-case. So, I use both Baggus and cotton bags on different occasions, and it works well for me.

Baggu reusable zero waste totes | Litterless

One thing Baggu gets right is that they accept their worn-out bags for recycling (!!!!). I'm of the opinion that companies should stand behind their products, repairing them until they can be repaired no longer and then offering to recycle them at the very end of their lifecycles. With that in mind, I've compiled a list of the companies who do this, whether it's taking back a container that their product comes in or accepting back the product itself. And because reusing something is preferable to recycling it, next to each I've noted which you can expect to happen to your returned goods.

Clothing & Accessories.

-Baggu: Baggu takes their bags back when they've reached the end of their useful life (until then, you can wash them or mend them yourself to extend their use). You can bring bags to one of their physical stores in the Bay Area or Brooklyn, or mail them to the address listed hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

-Eileen Fisher: EF is working toward becoming a completely circular company, and so they have a few programs set up to make sure your Eileen Fisher garments need never go to the landfill. They'll help you repair your favorites, or accept garments you no longer want back for resale, repurposing, or recycling. You'll also get a $5 store credit for each item you send or bring in. I went to a talk by some of their designers working on zero waste principles back in April, and I left super impressed. Just a week or so ago, my mom gave me an old Eileen Fisher tank top of hers to send back to the company for resale or repurposing... but I liked it, so I kept it. You can shop their secondhand pieces on their website or find the details on returning your worn goods hereReuse or recycle? Both.

-Madewell: I don't have much applause for the sustainability credentials of this brand (though you'd never know it by the number of Madewell clothes I pick up secondhand), but they do accept old jeans from all brands at their stores for recycling; you can find out more about that program, hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

-Patagonia: Patagonia has been incredibly supportive of Zero Waste Chicago, so I'd already be a fan even if their circular economy initiatives weren't so rad, which they are. Through their Worn Wear program, they buy back good-condition Patagonia clothing, repair things that you'd like to keep but that need some TLC, and accept unusable pieces for recycling. So, when buying sportswear, Patagonia is a great choice because you know your items will never need to hit the landfill. You can also follow along with their Worn Wear antics on InstagramReuse or recycle? Both.

-REI: REI accepts their old clothing and gear back for donation; you can send it in using a prepaid shipping label. To find out more or get started, click here. Reuse or recycle? Reuse. And maybe recycling if not - I can't quite tell.


-Lush: This cosmetics company offers many products entirely without packaging; those that do come packaged are typically sold in little pots that can, once emptied, be returned to the Lush store. If you collect five empty pots to return, they'll give you a free face mask! It's a nice incentive, but unfortunately the pots are recycled, not cleaned and reused, so still take caution when purchasing from here. More info on their takeback program can be found hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

-Schmidt's: Schmidt's, makers of natural deodorant that you can find locally at places like Whole Foods, offers a takeback program for their glass jars of deodorant. For every five empty glass jars that you return, they'll give you you a free deodorant - plus, it's free to mail the empties back to them, as well. They sanitize and reuse their empty jars; just note that each new jar comes with an unnecessary, and not recyclable, small plastic scoop. You can learn more about their program, as well as get started on mailing yours in, hereReuse or recycle? Reuse.

-Origins: This cosmetic company accept cosmetics packaging from any company, not just their own, for recycling. You can read more about their program hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

-Kiehl's: Like Lush, Kiehl's is a cosmetics company takes back their empty containers for recycling, and gives you a small reward when you collect enough empties. Because their products are invariably plastic-packaged, this is small comfort for the zero waster, but maybe you can hoard your sister-in-law's stash or convince your BFF to start collecting the empty containers from her favorite lotion. Get the full scoop on their program hereReuse or recycle? Recycle.

Terracycle programs.

If you frequently purchase the same product that comes in packaging, check to see if there's a Terracycle program for recycling it. You can find a current list of Terracycle's free recycling programs here; they typically partner with companies directly, so, for example, you can send in the packages from Toms of Maine oral care products, Gu Energy gels, Bausch & Lomb contact lenses, and Lara Bars to be recycled. This isn't an excuse to buy overpackaged products like plastic-wrapped granola bars, of course, but merely a way to deal with them if they arise (which, despite the best of intentions, they often might). Take a look at the full list to see what else appeals to you - for musicians, they take instrument strings! Reuse or recycle? Recycle.


Too often I think zero waste writers and public figures assume that no one will have anything in danger of becoming landfill trash, because everyone is able to buy everything without packaging and never has anything to dispose. But of course we do ourselves a disservice with this type of thinking; fact is, everyone has to buy things in packaging occasionally, or has clothing items that wear out and can't be donated. The more options we have for getting those objects to a place where they'll be correctly recycled or reused, the better.

So, let's all build a mental directory of where we can send things like this. And, when you mail things in, you can of course use smart zero waste-style mailing practices; I've shared my favorite tips for that here. There are, I'm sure, so many programs that I'm missing, and I'd love to learn what they are - if you know of more, kindly share in the comments?

Previously in Home: How to stop junk mail, and notes on keeping reading material circulating.

What To Do With Harder-to-Recycle Items

In an ideal world (so, not necessarily this one), the zero waster hums along with bulk bags in tow, making no trash, leaving no trace. In reality, I've found, unexpected pieces of recycling crop up. Some recyclables are, of course, widely accepted - paper, glass, aluminum. Other things can be recycled, but because it's hard to figure out where to do so, they tend to end up as trash. Below, I've rounded up a few of my favorite resources for recycling those odds and ends, and I'd love to hear yours, too.

Gift cards.

Once they're finally spent, a few options come to mind. If they're to a favorite local business/coffee shop/restaurant/store your friend loves, you might be able to reuse them for future gifts! Most stores can add value to old cards. Or, you can send them away for recycling. Terracyle and Earthworks both accept gift cards. Terracycle's program requires a fairly large fee, and may work best at institutions like schools/libraries/etc.; however, Earthworks' takeback program is free, excepting only postage (just can send them an inquiry email to find out the address you should ship to!). I save my cards in a box (and offer to take the empty ones from friends and family), and plan to send them all away at once when it's full.

Stretchy plastic.

Bags, wrappers, and things of that ilk are so ubiquitous that acquiring one or two over time seems, sadly, inevitable. Many grocery stores and pharmacies have drop-off bins near their entrance for recycling these (my local CVS and Walgreens pharmacies both do). Look for the drop box next time you're there, or ask an employee to help you locate it.


Fellow zero waste blog No Need For Mars introduced me to Free the Girls, a company that will take your gently used bras to help victims of sex trafficking open their own secondhand clothing stores.

Plastic pots.

You know, the kind you acquire when you impulse purchase a lavender plant. (Or is that just me?) These seem like they should be recyclable, but don't usually have numbers on them. When purchasing starter plants from a farmers' market, I've chatted with the sellers and have found that many are happy to take these pots back once you've repotted the plant into your own container.

Packing peanuts.

Since I don't package things up with them myself, I tend to sort of forget that packing peanuts exist. Out of sight, out of mind at its finest. So, if I have to order something online, I may accidentally neglect to specify "no packing peanuts" in notes to the seller. When I received a package with packing peanuts a few months ago, I took them to my local UPS store, who gladly accepted them for reuse. If you don't have a UPS near you, check with another mailing and packaging company in your area.

Old exercise shoes.

Those ones that are too muddy and worn to donate to a local resale shop. You can find a few options for recycling them, here, or you can check with your nearest running store to see if they offer a take back program or know of someone else who does. Often these recycled shoes become soft, mulch-like turf on playgrounds.


Terracycle offers programs for recycling many different categories of those hard-to-recycle things; they accept a lot of unusual pieces that your local recycling won't. Some examples: Toms of Maine brand products, stuffed animals, pipet tips (for the scientists among us), paint brushes. Some of their recycling programs are free, and others demand a (sometimes large) fee - the latter might be best set up at your school/office/community center. At the vey least, browsing their website is pretty interesting - so take a look!

If you're not sure about something, a quick Google search ("How to Recycle ____") can help get you on the right track! If that fails, maybe you can upcycle it; find some ideas in that category, here. What other tricky things do you go out of your way to recycle? I'd love to hear.