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How Sunglasses Made From Ocean Trash Are Keeping Workers Afloat Overseas

June 28, 2016Posted by Terry Turner

We’ve brought you the stories of companies making biodegradable alternatives to plastic packaging and people who’ve taken a hands-on approach to intercepting plastic before it can reach the ocean.

Just in time for beach season, we’re covering the story of two guys who set out to do something even more ambitious by creating a recycling industry in a country without one.

The plan was simple: pay a living wage to workers in a developing country in order to keep plastic pollution out of the ocean, where 8 million tons worldwide continue to pose a lethal threat to marine life. The catch of the day was just how the two ambitious young men behind the project were going to pay for it all. 

Inspiration dawned on Rob Ianelli and Ryan Shoenike, literally, when the sun came up—they’d turn trash from the ocean into fashionable eyewear.

“We felt that developing sunglasses was a great way to create that awareness, because they have an inherent connection to the ocean and the beach,” Ianelli said. “Our manufacturers were not into it early in the game. They were like, ‘No, this is garbage. You want to make sunglasses out of garbage?’ They were a little perplexed.’”

But Schoenike and his partner powered through, and began creating buzz for their business by raising awareness for all of the waste that winds up in our water, deciding on Haiti as their beneficiary. 

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Virtually none of the plastic packaging discarded in Haiti is ever recycled. Trash is often piled on streets or dumped into canals and washed out to sea with the rain.

Norton Point, headquartered in Martha’s Vineyard here in the U.S., teamed up with the Ocean Conservancy to help spread the word about their plan, and worked with the Plastic Bank to pay locals living wages to collect and process plastic bottles — preventing plastic from ever ending up in the ocean itself.

The Plastic Bank began their work in Haiti two years ago, and has been able to establish a network of collection centers called Social Plastic Recycling Markets, helping to create jobs and a source of income for local collectors.

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The company will return five percent of its net profits back into clean-up efforts and pollution education, and, even though their sunglasses weigh mere ounces, promises to buy one pound of plastic for every set of frames they make, effectively taking a larger proportion of plastic out of the ocean than they use.

“It’ll lead to collecting a lot more material than we’ll actually use,” Shoenike said, “But we’ll definitely find uses for that material as part of our long term plan to show the value of ocean plastic and see what other products we can make out of it.”

Norton Point recently passed its Kickstarter goal to start production, and the company even has a hashtag: #SeaPlasticDifferently.

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