A biodegradable phone case is a pretty unconventional idea. Where did the inspiration come from?
My family and I were on vacation in Hawaii on a beautiful beach, but there were pieces of plastic everywhere. I'd never seen that before, and it really bothered me. Who would litter on such an amazing beach? When we returned, I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and how plastic in the ocean collects there and then washes up on beaches. I did some further research on plastic too - it's an amazing material, but the end of life needs to be managed better. Every piece of plastic that's ever been made still exists today, and less than 5% actually gets recycled.
It's such a linear thing that keeps on building and building, while in contrast, everything natural goes back into the earth. That bothered me, so I looked into alternatives and discovered biopolymers. They have the advantage of being biodegradable and compostable, but they have limited applications as they're very brittle, and that's when the idea hit me. I knew that flax fibre was a strong, natural material so I had an idea to combine flax fibres with biopolymers to make a stronger material which can be applied to different products. You can actually see the flax material in our phone cases - it provides shock absorption, as well as speeding up the rate of degradation in a compost.
How did you kick things off?
I've got a Bachelor of Science in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan and I've also worked as an environmental consultant in Western Canada for 17 years, cleaning up contaminated oil and gas sites. My research at the university allowed me to combine the two materials to make a new, improved material, and in 2011 we launched the very first Pela case, for the iPhone 4. I picked a phone case because it's a product that almost everyone uses, and then throws away when they get a new phone. It seemed crazy to me that a product you'd use for a few years would then get thrown away, lasting for hundreds or thousands of years in a landfill. It seems ridiculous that a non-renewable resource is used to make something with such a short usable lifespan.
Do Pela cases start to degrade after a while during normal use?
We get asked that a lot! You'll be glad to hear that our products only biodegrade in a compostable environment. You need heat, moisture, and microorganisms to break the material down. Outside of that environment, it's a material that’s built to last.
What were the early prototypes like?
In the very early stages were experimenting with almost everything - corn starch, potato starch, flax, and even beeswax, mixing different things together to see what would happen. We found a mixture that worked and scaled it, which was then tested in different types of compost to ensure that it would biodegrade reliably no matter where you were. If you don't have a compost at home, we also run a 360 programme where you can send us your case, and we grind it up and use it to make new products. At the end of the day, all of our products ultimately end up back in the earth, mimicking nature.
What’s been the reaction from consumers?
It starts a conversation and gets people talking about it. I hope it inspires people to think more about sustainability. I think it's an issue that's gained a lot of momentum. People care more about sustainability, and the impact of plastic has been in the news. More people are becoming aware of it, and the dangers it poses to marine life, birds and so on. We take complete responsibility for our products and I think people feel proud of their purchase while spreading the word about sustainable alternatives in the process. I think if every company did the same, it would be a game changer. We're trying to make great products but we also want to give something back so that we can be both environmentally, and socially, sustainable. Each purchase of our Ripple edition cases, for example, will provide a person in Kenya with clean drinking water for a year. We feel really excited to be a part of something like that.