How the “Plastic Pandemic” Inspired James Merrill to Start Opolis Optics

Editor’s Note: This article is brought to you by our friends at Opolis Optics. Fancy a pair for yourself? Use code: ‘INERTIA20’ for 20 percent off your purchase.

Three years ago, James Merrill was working as an overseas government contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). His job? Identify communities most at-risk for recruitment by radical groups and terrorist organizations. During his ten years of work for USAID and other international NGOs, James noticed a common thread between such communities at risk of radical recruitment – ​​plastic trash, or what he calls the “plastic pandemic.”

Of the 500 billion plastic bottles produced each year, only six percent are actually recycled with the rest finding their way into landfills, or worse, the ocean. And landfill communities as well as coastlines inundated by plastic trash are places ripe for recruitment radicals. It makes sense – if you were living in a community inundated by plastic trash, much of it from outside your borders, how far would you be willing to go to change that?

James Merrill Opolis Optics

James, rocking some of his latest “Stoked Plastic” sunglasses. Photo: Opolis Optics.

With that thorny issue in mind, and the knowledge that without dramatic changes plastic pollution is set to triple by 2050, James saw an opportunity to positively contribute on both ends of the problem – create a product that would make use of the plastic trash and provide work and honest pay for those living in trash-inundated communities in the form of cleanup and collection.

Thus, Opolis was born, taking PET plastic (the type of plastic found in most plastic bottles) out of these communities and turning it into affordable, high-quality, and good-looking sunglasses. Believe it or not, that’s a surprisingly rare endeavor. “There’s a million companies out there at this point doing great things with recycled PET (rPET),” James says, “but they’re not necessarily using rPET from the environment or the ocean. It’s more likely that they’re using virgin rPET like a water bottle that was thrown in the recycling bin. And even more rare is that rPET being used to create durable goods rather than consumables.”

Opolis graphic

The goal: a circular plastic economy. Photo: Opolis Optics.

As you might imagine, there’s a reason why those companies rely on virgin rPET. Melting down those scavenged plastic bottles and turning them into something new is far easier said than done. As plastic sits in landfills or floats around in the ocean, UV rays do tons of damage to the molecular structures within. “Our first attempts to turn the plastic we collected into sunglasses crumbled in our hands” James says. “So in order to rebuild the plastic integrity we had to create an extender that reinforces the rPET and allows us to make use of almost 100 percent of that plastic bottle collected from the ocean and turn it into a pair of sunglasses – that’s our special sauce .”

Opolis Stoked Plastic Collection

Each pair of sunglasses in the StokedPlastic™ collection makes use of an entire bottle of rPET, and the StokedPlastic™ case, right, uses another three bottles worth of rPET. Photo: Opolis Optics.

They call the blend”StockedPlastic™,” which makes up 50 percent of their line of sunglasses. The other side of the business is the “Bio-Based” collection, which uses bio-acetate, a type of plant-based polymers derived from natural materials such as hemp, red pulp, and cotton seeds. Best of all, the Bio-Based collection will completely biodegrade in 115 days under the correct circumstances (like in a landfill), but won’t do the same while you’re wearing them. The two sides of the business reflect their dual mission as a company. James and the Opolis team want to inspire change across the industry through their actions. Both in using recycled material rather than creating new plastic, and in searching for better solutions, such as their bio-acetate sunglasses.

Opolis champlain red

Champlain in Desert Bloom. Photo: Opolis Optics.

I got to try out a pair of the Champlain sunglasses made of StokedPlastic™ and was, well, stoked on the premium look and feel of these recycled sunglasses. With well-polarized lenses and a salt-water resistant coating, it’s hard to believe they ring in at just $145 bucks. Each pair of sunglasses makes use of the plastic from an entire plastic bottle, and the StokedPlastic™ sunglasses case that comes with each pair accounts for another three bottles removed from the ocean, beaches, and landfills.

So far, Opolis has been able to collect and repurpose over 308,000 plastic bottles from the environment. They’re aiming for a million by the end of the summer. And this fall/winter, James tells me that Opolis has plans to release a line of ski and snowboard goggles, bringing their ethos of sustainability to the slopes. It’s great to see companies such as Opolis stepping up to lead the charge in making use of the materials already available in the world around us rather than contributing to the”plastic pandemicWe find ourselves in.

To learn more, or to get a pair of your own visit OpolisOptics.comand don’t forget to use the code ‘INERTIA20’ for 20 percent off your purchase.

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