How a pair of eyeglasses could reduce plastic waste in Flint

A look inside Genusee's plans for eco-friendly eyewear

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FLINT, MI – Jack Burns and Ali Rose have a vision for Flint’s future: cutting down on the amount of plastic waste in the city by making unique pairs of eyeglasses, creating more than a dozen jobs in the process.

Every pair of eyeglasses sold by their startup, Genusee, is made from fifteen single-use water bottles.

The idea for Genusee came to Rose while she was working for the Red Cross in Detroit and saw news reports about the Flint water crisis.

“I observed that this community wasn’t just facing a horrific man-made water crisis,” Rose said, “but also a local environmental stress due to the fact that they were having to use bottled water for all of their daily needs.”

Burns and Rose say that all their decisions have been guided by four main goals: reducing localized plastic waste, creating living wage jobs, encouraging circular economies, and giving back to the people of Flint.

“You can talk to anyone in the community and people will tell you that even if they try to leave their recycling out for pickup,” said Rose, “it can be six to eight weeks before they see anyone actually come through.”

When somebody does come, the recyclables almost always end up at one of a small handful of companies where things like water bottles are melted into pellets to be shipped out of the city and sold to other companies.

In the short-term future, Genusee will work with those recycling companies to purchase the pellets that will be used to make their products. Looking further down the road, however, Burns sees an opportunity to partner with local schools and businesses to run a recycling system of their own in a vertical integration.

Regarding the Snyder administration’s move to end the distribution of free bottled water in Flint, Burns said the decision will have no impact on Genusee’s future.

“In the United States, we use between 1,500 and 2,000 bottles of water every second. Of that number, 23% are being recycled,” he said. “There’s no shortage of plastic.”

“We really didn’t set out with the intention of starting a business, it was more of just we want to help, and we want to do something,” Rose said. “The more we started engaging with the community and asking people specifically what they need and what Flint needs, everyone kept telling us jobs.”

To that end, Genusee aims to employ at least fifteen people by 2020.

While there will only be one style of glasses available in two different colors at launch, more are on the way. And when you are ready to switch out your existing frames for a new pair, Genusee will buy your old specs back from you. Once they do, Burns says that they will either be refurbished, donated, or recycled into a new pair of glasses.

All of this, Rose says, is a facet of how they plan to give back to the community. But it’s not the only way they plan to do so. Genusee will also donate 1% of all profits to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint’s Promise Fund, which offers scholarships to Flint high school graduates, and Child Health and Development Fund, which seeks to combat the effect lead poisoning has on Flint’s children.

Eventually, Rose says that she sees Genusee setting up a program in which children and adults can receive free eye exams and glasses frames. While nothing is finalized on the project at this time, Genusee’s founders have begun working with multiple partners to turn the concept into a reality.

“Having the right corrective vision can totally change a person’s life,” said Rose.

All of the plans for Genusee’s future are contingent on the success of their Kickstarter campaign, which seeks to raise $50,000 by May 18 to supplement a $20,000 award Genusee received as a part of the inaugural Elaine Gold Launch Pad program.

Pledges of $25 or more will see the buyer’s name added to a mural that will be painted in Flint with the Flint Public Art Project. One pair of Genusee’s glasses, which ships with lenses, a carrying case, and a polishing bag, can be purchased with a pledge of $99 or more (a $30 savings over the planned retail price of $129), while a pack of two sets of frames can be purchased at an additional discount for $189. For those who want a new pair of glasses every year, Genusee is offering a “glasses for life” membership that can be purchased with a pledge of $1,500 or more.

At press time, the Kickstarter campaign had earned almost $42,000.

“I’m really confident that the backers that have already pledged and supported the campaign are as passionate about seeing Genusee’s success as we are,” said Rose. “Flint is the number one poorest city in the United States, and there is no reason we shouldn’t be investing in the lives of anyone regardless of where they live.”

“You can travel all around the world and see communities that are in need and struggling, but as a Michigan native this was a community in my own backyard where I saw social and environmental injustices happening,” she continued. “As a human being, when you see injustices and your eyes are opened to it, there is a personal responsibility to do something about it and not just stand by and let this happen.”

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