As he traveled the world, James Merrill came to realize that efforts to recycle and reduce plastic waste were falling short.
There were discarded plastic bottles littered everywhere.
He wondered if all those bottles floating in oceans and piling up in landfills could be remade into a useful product that would help his brand tell a story of sustainability and environmental consciousness.
Enter the Opolis StokedPlastic ski and snow goggles, made from ocean-bound plastic and plastic found in the environment and landfills, not virgin plastic bottles or those collected in redemption centers.
The product earned him recognition at the fifth-annual Outdoor Retailer Innovation Awards at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in January.
Throughout the start-up’s launch, Opolis received support from Maine Outdoor Brands (MOB), a member-driven alliance of outdoor product companies, retailers, and organizations invested in Maine’s $3 billion outdoor recreation economy.
“We really pride ourselves on high-quality outdoor products and high-quality outdoor experiences, and ones that are steeped in innovation and sustainability,” said Jenny Kordick, executive director of Maine Outdoor Brands. “Opolis certainly met those criteria.”
MOB sees the Opolis innovation as potentially revolutionary – even beyond the outdoor industry.
“This work with recycled plastic water bottles is industry-leading and could do a massive amount of good in the world,” the organization said in a release.
The Impact of Plastic
Prior to starting Opolis, Merrill was a U.S. government contractor working and living in countries that were most impacted by plastic pollution.
For a decade, he worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international NGOs specializing in countering violent extremism and governance projects.
“The way humans consume products and natural resources is destroying our planet,” he said. “I got to really understand the impact that Western plastic was having on communities in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South Asia.”
“Five-hundred-billion water bottles and soda bottles are produced a year. But only seven to nine percent of all plastic bottles are actually recycled. I really wanted to do something about it.”
To accomplish that, Merrill created the goggle and sunglass brand Opolis Optics in 2020 with the goal of eliminating waste and reusing resources.
Opolis’ StokedSnow Goggles are made from 100% recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (rPET), the main ingredient in plastic bottles.
To produce the plastic, James teamed with local rPET manufacturers based in Bali, Manila, and Nairobi and assisted them in the cleanup of their beaches, oceans and landfills.
“Not only could I help them with their environment and with their surroundings, but I actually could help them treat plastic – this junk – as a commodity, a solution,” he said.
In fact, it takes 10 plastic water bottles to produce the amount of plastic needed to create the frame, foam, strap and buckles for each StokedSnow goggle. The lenses are polarized and scratch resistant and are the only component that’s not sustainable.
“With this collection we are trying to prove to the outdoor and retail industries that we can create incredible products without comprising performance,” he said. “Our (plastic) creates a monetizable plastic economy for the developing communities most impacted by plastic waste.”
To further refine the product, Opolis is working with the University of Southern Maine and its composite lab to create a plastic blend, Merrill said.
In addition to the goggles, Opolis also sells eyewear from plant-based and upcycled materials from communities in places that are most impacted by the plastic pandemic.
But the hype around the product hasn’t translated to an uptick in sales just yet.
While winning the award amplified the buzz around the company, Merrill said he’s been disappointed by the lack of follow-up from media and buyers.
“Fingers crossed that next season will be different for our goggle line,” he added. “My hope is that the mission, what it represents, and the quality of the product are what matter to media and buyers.”
Opolis is raising money to scale the patent and product lines. A saturated optics market, competitors with deep pockets, and controlled online marketing channels are limiting the company’s direct-to-consumer sales, Merrill said.
“What is keeping the ‘lights on’ now is a handful of Northeast retail accounts we have, which includes L.L. Bean, Sea Bags, and REI in Maine,” he added.
Maine Outdoor Brands
Last year, Opolis won another innovation award – this time from MOB.
The organization said this about Opolis: “The combination of durability and surface refinement Opolis is achieving with rPET was previously only achieved with virgin plastics. Eventually, this technology will be used to make other durable goods.”
Membership in MOB means a brand can exhibit along with other companies at its booth at Outdoor Retailer trade shows, saving on expenses. The organization also helps brands meet with buyers and media.
In addition, MOB works with state organizations and funding entities in Maine that specifically support businesses, according to Kordick.
“We’re not directly giving out the funding, but we can help make those connections,” she added.
Merrill praised his company’s working relationship with MOB.
“MOB has been with me since the very beginning,” he said. “They have sponsored numerous events to get Opolis in front of the right people and audiences, which includes three appearances at OR.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.