If you ask Jeremy Lang, he’ll tell you flax has some impressive flex, though you might be surprised where that comes in handy – like a case in the palm of your hand, wrapped around your cellphone.
The kicker: They’re biodegradable. Those same flax fibres help your discarded case return to the earth in an appropriate, ecological timeframe (maximum one year in a home compost) after you switch out for a new case.
He launched the first model just under 10 years ago out of Saskatoon, when Apple released its iPhone 4s.
“The weird thing was the [plastic] case you use to protect it would last for hundreds of thousands of years; most people only kept their phones for two years,” Lang said in an interview.
His company, Pela, has grown considerably since he started it at Innovation Place at the University of Saskatchewan campus.
Pela moved its headquarters to Kelowna in 2018, while keeping operations in Saskatoon and expanding them to the U.S., Germany, Hong Kong and China.
It now sells compostable cases for 16 iPhone models and 29 Android-based models. Ditto for straps that need a smart watch. There’s a line of earth-friendly sunglasses, too.
Despite Pela’s global growth, its roots are in Saskatchewan’s agriculture scene, says Lang, who grew up in Regina and Yorkton and earned a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from the U of S.
Driving northeast on Highway 10 to Yorkton as a kid, he recalled, “through the valley at harvest time, the sky was glowing orange. It was getting to be night time, and coming out of the valley I saw these fields on fire.”
His dad told him, "the farmers are burning their flax straw, because they grow it for the oil seed, but the fibre in the straw is so strong it gets caught up in their equipment, so they burn it.”
He figured if it’s that strong, it ought to be good for something. Hence the phone cases.
“It has shock-absorption qualities to it … in Europe they grow flax for the fibre and the straw, not the oil seed,” he said, referencing its use in bike frames and tennis rackets.
That, plus flax’s biodegradable qualities make for a useful phone case ingredient, he said.
Lang also believes it’s important to create a market for farmers where they can sell their baled flax stubble, instead of torching it: Bale processors buy them and break them down into tiny pieces, which Pela buys and puts into its heat-moulded cases, along with coloured biopolymers.
He likened the end product to "a cork-like material" with some eye-catching flax flecks.
Looking ahead, Pela is in the crowdfunding phase of a counter-top, food-scraps composter called Lomi.
Lang says it’s to play a big role in the company reaching its 2028 goal: One billion pounds of waste diverted from landfills, every year, a big chunk of which is all that plastic from those seemingly brick-like cases.
“It's the whole concept of using things as many times as we can and then they have a graceful end of life … so it goes back to the earth and mimics nature,” he said.