We are interested in awesome products, those that serve a purpose in the pursuit of a passion. Likewise, we’re focused on discovering the people responsible for creating those products, and understanding how and why they got to where they are.
Typically, we come across a product first and then uncover the story behind it. In the case of Opolis Optics, the roles were reversed. After hearing about the company from our friend Zach on his podcast Along The Keel, we found it imperative to learn more about James Merrill and Opolis Optics.
Opolis Optics uses recycled and bio-based materials to construct badass sunglasses. Their biodegradable collection is available now, and consists of frames made from 100% plant based acetate. Have you ever worn sunglasses made from cotton seeds, red pulp, and hemp? If you haven’t, and you want to...we know a guy.
We were lucky enough to get our hands on a few pairs. They look, feel, and wear great. But the best part about wearing them is knowing they serve a purpose, and remind you to serve one as well.
Additionally, Opolis is working on their second line of sunglasses, which will be made from recycled plastic and will give Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) a second life. PET plastic is extremely common in single use plastics like water and soda bottles. If you’ve spent time outside, you’ve seen discarded plastic bottles in places they don’t belong. They suck. They don’t belong in our water, on our beaches, or on our streets.
Here’s a fun fact, PET wasn’t invented until 1973. Research suggests plastic bottles began revolutionizing the beverage industry in the 1980’s. So, in the insanely short window of time between then and now, we have managed to consume all the plastic bottles you now see littering our streets, forests, rivers, oceans, etc. - literally everywhere you go and ever will go. James and Opolis are working to mitigate that problem.
"Over 500 billion plastic bottles are made every year, one million are bought every minute, and only nine percent are recycled."
The first thing we asked James was what contributed to the ethos behind the brand, he replied, “Over 500 billion plastic bottles are made every year, one million are bought every minute, and only nine percent are recycled. Most of these plastic polluters either end up in a landfill or in the ocean.”
James spent a number of years working for the United States Agency of International Development (USAID). During this time, he worked on projects ranging from agricultural value chains, biodiversity protection practices, and violence extremism. One common theme James experienced while working in southeast Asia and Africa was the abundance of plastic pollution. He saw firsthand the negative impacts plastic pollution has on the health of these communities and the people that inhabit them.
The mission for Opolis is much more than creating eco-friendly sunglasses, it’s about creating a circular economy where everyone has a stake in the game. That is how you truly combat a crisis as monumental as plastic pollution - empower everyone to join the fight.
“Our goal is to change the narrative around sustainable supply chains for the marketplace,” he explained. The supply chain behind Opolis Optics is a vast international network geared towards cleaning up waste and helping the communities involved.
“Opolis’ supply chain is intentionally designed to uplift and benefit the communities (and unsung heroes) that are directly involved...Each person and place deserves to reap the rewards of their involvement, from the waste collectors picking up plastic bottles from the oceans, beaches, and landfills, to the customers putting a pair of sunglasses on their face.”
We weren’t super familiar with international sustainable supply chains. In fact, when we first spoke to James, we thought it had something to do with international spies. Why spies? Well, because spies wear cool sunglasses. Little did we know, an international sustainable supply chain is a thing, and as complex as it sounds to us, our man James has quite a bit of experience in international development.
Opolis has a network of over 2,000 waste collectors from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Kenya to recover plastic and transform it into sustainable sunglasses. James has partnered with recycled plastic material manufacturers in Bali, Manila, and Nairobi to source raw materials.
James is driven by what he encountered overseas. He recalls, “The most profound experiences I had with plastic pollution were working with landfill communities in Africa and the Middle East as well as being completely overwhelmed seeing beaches of Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea entirely covered in trash. It was so bad that there was no beach in sight.”
“Working with these communities and seeing what they endured everyday had a profound impact on me,” explained James. He continued, “as an avid outdoor enthusiast and advocate for the environment I told myself that if I ever decided to leave my career, I would do something to support these communities.”
What James has built to this point with Opolis is incredible, but it hasn't been easy. Think for a second about coordinating the logistics of an international supply chain that directly involves three continents and spans practically the entire globe. We're talking different time zones, different languages, different holidays, regulations and costs for importing and exporting...there's quite a few obstacles.
One of the most frustrating things for James, especially during the past year with COVID, has been coordinating all of this stateside. "Although I am not foreign to this remote management support, I am a field guy by nature and would rather be hands on working with these amazing individuals."
Growing up in coastal Maine, James learned to appreciate the environment at an early age. Whether it was clamming in the mudflats with his grandfather, surfing, eating lobster on the coast or snowboarding up in the mountains, James acknowledged and respected the resources and beauty around him.
He now lives on the West Coast, where these activities and a general love of the outdoors offer James a mental break from overseeing operations. Admittedly, with travel shut down and lockdowns in place it was hard to leave his desk. “A year of COVID has made it difficult to shut off or put Opolis on pause,” he said. James continued, “with the quarantine lockdowns and restricted travel it's been extremely hard to get up from my desk, or as my girlfriend can attest, stop scheming and dreaming all that the brand can be.”
His recipe to stay sane and keep his passions alive is simple, and doesn’t branch far from his roots in Maine. “To stay mentally healthy I make sure I am in the water or by the water everyday,” James said. He and his girlfriend have also enjoyed road trips through Northern California, Arizona, and Utah.
As our conversation progressed, it became easy to see how this dude created Opolis Optics. His experiences growing up in Maine, traveling, and working abroad helped shape his vision of what a brand should be, "...we use an honest and transparent supply chain to ensure we are promoting a circular economy rather than use cheap synthetic materials that exploit the communities involved in their production and hurt the environment(s) they are built in..."
The last thing there was to ask, which brings everything full circle, was for his definition of sustainability. And he listed:
"1. Finite Planet
Understanding that the planet is not everlasting and as climate change has shown us, it is dying. Are the measures we are taking contributing to its care?
2. Environmental Justice
Instead of the exploitation of the environment or lower income countries, communities and individuals, is your product or brand providing ways in which to support them?
3. Care of Home
On a personal level, practicing what I preach. Finding ways at home to be more sustainable with the way I consume natural resources and repurpose materials or products.
4. Honest and Transparent Supply Chain
Ensuring everything and everyone the supply chain touches results in some shape or form of positive impact."
After listening to James explain what sustainability means to him and Opolis, it all clicked. A little extra care and change in how we manufacture and consume products will ultimately impact the world in a positive way. We are happy to know there are people like James out there utilizing their life experiences for the bigger picture.
Want to learn more about James and Opolis Optics? Check out the podcast episode here. Take a look at our gallery below to see how we're putting Opolis sunglasses to the test.