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By Erin Gold
Ali Rose VanOverbeke and Jack Burns, co-founders of Flint eyewear startup Genusee, can measure their progress in plastic. So far, they’ve turned more than 16,000 water bottles into eyewear and accessories.
After raising nearly $100,000 through crowdfunding campaigns earlier this year, Genusee officially launched their site and online ordering last month. They’ve shipped more than 1,100 frames, and are already seeing customers return for second pairs.
They have come a long way since VanOverbeke first came back to her home state to volunteer with the Red Cross in the wake of the Flint water crisis in 2016. As a volunteer, she began to wonder about the waste created by the tens of millions of plastic water bottles residents used when their tap water wasn’t safe to drink, and what could be done with the excess plastic.
Burns — VanOverbeke’s friend, longtime collaborator and fellow graduate of New York City’s Parsons School of of Art and Design — was the recipients of many of these inquiries. “It was literally a year of texting back and forth,” VanOverbeke said. “I would text him, ‘can we make things?’ ‘Can we make that?’”
How it works: Flint-based recycling companies send bottles to a processor in Dundee, Mich. that pelletizes the plastic. The pellets are turned into frame parts by an injection molding facility in Warren, Mich.. Those then travel back to Flint, where Genusee staff do post-processing, from sanding to assembly. Lenses are purchased separately, but are ground to buyers’ prescriptions and tinted in-house.
Despite paving the way with our bottle deposit law decades ago, Michigan now has one of the worst overall recycling rates in the country and sent roughly 12.6 million tons of solid waste to state landfills in 2017 alone. One of the reasons VanOverbeke and Burns settled on eyeglasses was so they didn’t just create a different single-use object. “It’s important to be upcycling things into products that have a longer lifespan because plastics were designed to last forever,” she said.
Genusee is built on the principles of a “circular economy,” reusing materials and “designing waste out of the system.” But it was also motivated by VanOverbeke’s experience living in Flint, where she kept hearing the same thing: “we really need jobs.”
“In Flint, over 54 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the majority does not have a college education,” she said. “But the community has a strong manufacturing heritage and skill set.”
In the last few months, they’ve gone from one employee to three, hiring workers through a partnership with MADE Institute. The Flint organization provides services to formerly incarcerated individuals and others returning to the workforce.
“It is all about sustainable employment,” VanOverbeke said. “Our focus has been on making sure we are paying a living wage to our employees.”
They’ve been encouraged by the success of their holiday pop-up shops (and there are a couple still coming up if you want to check out the frames in-person), but a brick-and-mortar outpost isn’t in their immediate plans. Next on the agenda after the holidays are over is designing new frames — they only have one style available for now.
Like any growing startup, Genusee’s challenge is to prove that there is a demand for their product. But they’re also trying to sell consumers on the whole mission behind their manufacturing process.
“We’ve already created so much material that is then becoming waste, so we’re killing our planet if we don’t change to a more circular economy,” VanOverbeke said. “This is the future of industry and manufacturing and consumerism.”
Erin Gold is a Detroit-based independent journalist. When she is not writing about Detroit, she is mostly managing events at Pages Bookshop or working on her latest stained glass creation. You can find her on Instagram @erinegold, on Twitter @erine_gold or learn more about her at erinegold.com.