Startup looks to manufacture eyeglasses using recycled water bottles

Ali Rose Van Overbeke is looking to build an eyeglass company to upcycle thousands of plastic bottles generated from the water crisis into low-cost eyeglasses.

In early 2016, Van Overbeke volunteered with the American Red Cross in Flint, helping to distribute water to those in need. After returning to New York, the Detroit native said she couldn’t shake the feeling that something needed to be done to help the people of Flint. 

She began to bombard friend Jack Burns with endless streams of text messages asking about possibilities of design and manufacturing. The two graduates and classmates from Parson’s School for Design in New York decided to make the leap. The business plan came to fruition, albeit on a post-it note and the two founded Genusee.

“Jack and I were meeting. We were still working full time, meeting every day after work,” Van Overbeke says. “(We) started prototyping, writing out business plans, and finding out what our goals were.”

For the two founders, giving back to the community and creating jobs are two of the main focuses for Genusee. The other is helping to create a circular economy that uses an excess resource and creates a use out of it. 

With Flint’s automotive history in mind, Genusee aims to bring a scalable business into the city, that creates easily trainable jobs manufacturing the eyeglasses as well as marketing, social media management and design.

“By 2020, we’re conservatively wanting to create at least 15 living-wage jobs,” says Van Overbeke. “We say that because it’s more important to keep a leaner team and pay actual, affordable living wages than hiring as many as possible at minimum wage. … We want people that are manufacturing the glasses to be able to buy them for themselves and for their families.”

To start, Genusee will be launching one style of glasses available in two colors and with either single-vision prescription or tinted lenses. The Roeper was “democratically designed” to suit many face shapes and are transitional between sunglasses and optical frames.

“We wanted to create a design that would look good on everyone,” she says.

The glasses will retail for $129. Genusee will be offering a buy-back program for their glasses. When and if the customer would like to update their glasses, they can be turned in for a credit toward another pair. At that point, the pair that are turned in will be upcycled, refurbished or donated. 

Currently, the glasses are formed in Warren by process of injection molding. The plastic bottles are rendered down and turned into small pellets which are injected into casts to create the frames. Approximately 15 bottles are used to create each pair of glasses. The remainder of the manufacturing process is happening in Flint Township. Cutting lenses, installing them, installing hinges and shipping. The goal is to move all production everything to the local community, Van Overbeke says.

To do this, funding is essential. Building out an all-encompassing facility in Flint is a task that will require much more capital. For now, the focus is on getting the very first market run of Genusee glasses created. 

“We want to not just start something that’s trending really quickly but can be long-term sustainable and attract other long-term businesses to the area,” says Van Overbeke. “We’re in this for the long haul. I want to be a 100-year-old company.”

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Read more articles by Tim Galloway.