Vision for the Future: Opolis Optics is Optimizing Plastic



James Merrill went from the Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) unit in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to the sunglasses industry, and to him the transition was obvious. After noticing how environmental injustice, particularly plastic waste inundating communities, plagued those most at risk for recruitment to terrorism, Merrill set out to create a durable recycled plastic material. The result was Opolis Optics, an eyewear company hailing a number of styles made from a patented recycled plastic or plant-based blend. 

During his work at USAID and other NGOs, Merrill noticed that those engaging in violence or at risk lived in low-income communities or near landfills.

Merrill’s final assignment in Nigeria, instituting measures to counter Boko Haram recruitment efforts, crystallized for him the potential to address radicalization in another, less conventional way. “I started to really look at the ecosystem of plastic pollution and how it was linked to radicalization and recruitment,” Merrill says. 

For personal reasons, Merrill decided to stop working in the government. “That didn’t mean I wanted to stop helping the communities that I lived [in] and worked with for so long,” Merrill says. 

He began to research plastic technology and its impact on at-risk communities and came across rPET, short for recycled polyethylene terephthalate. To translate, it’s basically a type of recycled plastic material made from PET, a prevalent type of plastic used in making water bottles and other single-use items. While rPET is gaining popularity in manufacturing, it is primarily used in making other water bottles. Merrill wanted to find a way to use 100% rPET in reusable goods, such as sunglasses, but the current rPET material was too delicate.

After trying out a number of different manufacturers and working with the University of Southern Maine STEM lab, Merrill finally developed an rPET blend that would be strong enough for durable goods. He named this material StokedPlastic, got a patent on it, and now uses it in Opolis glasses.

Opolis partners with rPET manufacturers in Bali, Nairobi, and Manila that are working to keep their communities and the environment clean.

But Merrill isn’t just focused on using recycled plastic. Opolis’ Bio-Based sunglass collection uses bio acetate. Traditional acetate, common in sunglasses, uses plasticizers, which are petroleum-based. Opolis’ alternative contains polymers made from plant materials such as hemp, cotton seeds, and red pulp. Perhaps the best part about the Bio collection — aside from its sleek styles — is that these specs biodegrade in the landfill in just 115 days. “Everybody asks if they’re going to biodegrade on your face,” Merrill says. Thankfully, it takes the conditions specific to a landfill to break down this material so quickly. If you’re wearing them a lot, Merrill says, you can expect these plant-based shades to last you 3–4 years. 

Beyond sunglasses, Opolis Optics is launching a line of ski and snowboard goggles made with the StokedPlastic blend. 

The demand for more transparently sustainable products is there, Merrill explains. “I wanted to feel so good about how I answered [customer] questions and to be able to say we were proud of how we source and produce and sell our product,” he says. 

To date, Opolis Optics has taken roughly 300,000 water bottles from the Balinese coast with its StokedPlastic collection. The near-term goal, according to Merrill, is to reach one million bottles removed. 

“What I dream about is to be able to put these little facilities around the world that can turn plastic into rPET,” Merrill says. Starting with sunglasses, Merrill sees a future in which communities repurpose their plastic to not only clean up their natural surroundings, but strengthen themselves against social harms.

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Lily Olsen
Lily Olsen
Lily is an Associate Editor and Reporter on the Bluedot team — joining from sunny California. She is a recent Princeton graduate with a degree in political science. Her work spans human rights and advocacy through internships at the State Department and the AND Campaign.

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