A small Dutch nonprofit made a big step for ocean health and a circular economy this month. The Ocean Cleanup, which is collecting and repurposing the plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has created sunglasses from its first catch.
It certainly is one way to raise awareness about the ocean plastic crisis among consumers.
“We chose to make timeless sunglasses as our first product because they are durable, useful and, since we’re dependent on word-of-mouth to spread our mission, we hope that by making something that is often carried around, they can also help create awareness,” The Ocean Cleanup said in a press release.
The sunglasses were made using the nonprofit’s first plastics catch from last December and are meant to be both durable and treasured. Though made from trash, this premium product was designed to be kept forever. The glasses were conceived by industrial designer Yves Béhar and created in Italy by the eyewear company Safilo. Frames are made from certified high-quality plastic. Even if a pair turns out to be neither durable nor treasured, it can be easily disassembled and recycled.
According to The Ocean Cleanup, each pair carries with it a higher purpose to raise awareness and fund further cleanups. A unique QR code on the frame links to the specific story of the plastics used to create it and also enables a lost-and-found feature. This is all possible because the 2019 catch was immediately tracked and audited.
This nonprofit also says it is reinvesting all proceeds to cleaning up more trash from the ocean. Simply selling a single pair, The Ocean Cleanup says, funds clearing 24 football fields of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Selling all available sunglasses has the potential to clean the equivalent of 500,000 such fields worth of plastic.
The amount of plastic reaching the oceans could nearly triple by 2040, Pew Charitable Trusts and the think tank SystemIQ revealed earlier this year. But if we embrace a circular economy centered on reusing and recycling, plastic pollution could be reduced by 80 percent over the next two decades, according to their the report.
A complete overhaul could cost $600 billion, but procrastinating would cost $70 billion more, Pew estimates.
While The Ocean Cleanup is only a small organization, it aims to collect 90 percent of ocean plastic pollution by 2040 through its cleaning technologies and circular innovations. Of course, it won’t achieve this feat alone, but its fervent example may inspire companies, even industries, to shift their practices.
It’s not always clear what can spur change. Two years ago, plastic straw bans began to sweep the world, partly due to a marine biologist recording and posting the removal of a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose. Eliminating plastic straws may not have been the end-all and be-all for solving pollution, but there’s no calculating the impact increased awareness of the larger plastics crisis had for plastic bag bans, a growing zero-waste lifestyle movement and amplified corporate sustainability commitments.
Stopping the flow of plastic from product to trash to microplastics will certainly require a multi-tiered solution. A "Blue Paper" published this summer by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy emphasized that counteracting ocean pollution effectively will require going upstream to sources like stormwater runoff. One reason The Ocean Cleanup is beginning with the trash gyrating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is because the plastic already trapped there will simply continue to break down, becoming more of a hazard to ocean life. “Once trapped in a gyre, the plastic will slowly break down into microplastics and become increasingly easier to mistake for food by sea life,” The Ocean Cleanup writes on its website.
This first simple product has been seven years in the making — since the nonprofit was founded by an ambitious college dropout in 2013. If anything, sporting ocean plastic sunglasses will support a persistent effort to both preserve the health of our oceans and reverse the course of our linear economy.
Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup media gallery
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.