Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Kat Slootsky
All Other Images Courtesy Of Genusee
Unfortunately, one bad thing often begets another. When the municipalities, state, and country collectively failed the people of Flint and allowed them to be poised by the most basic public good, drinking water, a secondary, scarcely talked about calamity came on its heels. It’s hardly a surprise that the scourge of plastic bottles that literally line the streets of Flint is overshadowed by the water crisis that necessitated the water bottles, given what monumental catastrophe the water crisis is. However, the water bottle problem still needs fixing. And it would be nice if, in the course of fixing the problem, some of the old auto manufacturing facilities could be revved back into action, and new jobs could be created.
This is where eyewear and a little incubator at Parsons come into play. Ali Rose VanOverbeke and Jack Burns, two of the visionaries (pardon the pun) behind Genusee, are willing into existence a project to turn Flint’s plastic waste into eyeglasses, in the most environmentally conscious, local way possible. They are joined by Michigan-based plastics expert, Mark Richardson; I met with the two NYC-based members of the team at Parsons where they ran down the problem for me and how they plan to go about solving it.
First of all, according to VanOverbeke, the sheer number of bottles littering Flint is staggering. “There are a lot of local efforts to clean it up, but while the water has been mostly restored, since April 2014 people were relying solely on bottled water for everything. And at the height of the crisis, the city was using 20 million bottles of water a day.” When I was transcribing this interview, I had to back up and double check that figure to make sure she said “a day.” At that rate, it would have taken fewer than 2 months for one billion plastic bottles to be dropped on a city that didn’t have the capacity to dispose of them, let alone recycle them.
VanOverbeke, a Detroit native, came face-to-face with the problem when visiting home in 2016. “It was when the Flint water crisis was happening, and I was volunteering with the Red Cross. We were delivering cases and cases and cases of bottled water to people in Flint. And I was taken aback by how much plastic I was seeing on a daily basis. As a city, they weren’t just facing a water crisis, but there’s this surplus of plastic coming into the city creating a localized environmental crisis. Jack and I are always talking, and I said I really want to find a design solution for something we could do with all the plastic in Flint, while simultaneously creating jobs for people there. It’s a huge population that’s been displaced from the automotive industry. So we wanted to create a product that could capitalize on the skillset that the population already has in manufacturing and assembly. And I thought this fit all those buckets. And it’s a real product of need. It’s a fashion product as well as a medical need. It can be assembled by anyone with on-the-job skills training.”
I really want to find a design solution for something we could do with all the plastic in Flint, while simultaneously creating jobs for people there. - Ali Rose VanOverbeke
VanOverbeke and Burns had been collaborators since they attended Parsons together. After graduating, they were selected to work with Ford Motors and Conde Naste for the 50th anniversary of the Mustang; they also designed costumes for musicians performing at the U.N. Sustainability Summit through a process that involved mapping soundscapes onto the clothing, drawing on data collected by 411. According to Burns, “Whenever you call into 411, they map and record all that information. And you can color code it, so we started aggregating all that data and putting it into prints.”
Their work with Flint is part of their fellowship with the Elaine-Gold CFDA Launch Pad. The program finalizes in February, so plan on hearing a lot more about the project then.
For now, they have all the pieces in place for production, and they have a prototype ready to go. They say they’re still tweaking it for ergonomics, but I picked it up and felt it, and it looks and feels great to me.