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.
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 here. Reuse 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 here. Reuse 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, here. Reuse 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 Instagram. Reuse 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 here. Reuse 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, here. Reuse or recycle? Reuse.
-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 here. Reuse or recycle? Recycle.
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?