Behind the Bio-Shades

By Ned Morgan.

We’ve been hearing a lot about ZEAL Optics’ Crafted Collection, the world’s first line of biodegradable sunglasses. Hold on – biodegradable? Like banana peels and coffee grounds? We had to investigate how sunglasses could be durable like synthetic plastic, but made of organic material. We’re so inured to Pacific Garbage Patch–ready, petroleum byproduct plastic frames.

The Crafted Collection sunglass frames are produced from cotton linters (very small fibers around the seeds of the cotton plant), purified into a pulp and then into a resin known as M49 that can be used for injection molding. Years of research went into the development of specific injection-machinery and flow specifications for creating sunglasses with this material, exclusive to ZEAL.

Zeal's Ace, from the Crafted Collection.
ZEAL’s Ace, from the Crafted Collection.

Mountain Life: We know that synthetic plastic lasts many decades, which is good for durability but obviously bad for the environment. Can you comment on the longevity of your M49 resin? Consumers might assume that because it’s biodegradable, it may not be as long-lived.

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ZEAL: This is a great question and definitely one that we’ve heard many times. This material only begins to break down in an anaerobic environment – places devoid of air. So unless you’re storing them at the bottom of your pool, in a sandbox or in a vacuum chamber, our Crafted Collection will enjoy a long, healthy life with you, just like any other sunglass frame.

ML: How did you end up partnering with Italy’s Mazzucchelli

ZEAL: It’s been a real honor working with one of the optical industry’s founding families. Our president, John Sanchez, has a long history in the optics world, beginning his career on the warehouse floor at Ray Ban and working his way up through the ranks. Over the years John has developed strong relationships with nearly all of the industry’s top players. When Mazzucchelli developed this material, they could have brought it to any brand, but they came to ZEAL based on our focus on sustainably-focused practices and materials.

Mazzucchelli’s innovation, combined with its age-old focus on craftsmanship, makes them the perfect partner for this line. From working with their team hand-shaping molds to get the initial pieces just right, to attention to detail on every piece, this has been a great partnership.

ML: Who hit upon the idea of using cotton linters to make a resin?

ZEAL: Cotton linters and to a greater extent wood fibres have been used in the production of acetate-based plastics for generations and although the bill of materials sounds great, the manufacturing process has been less than clean. Mazzucchelli recognized demand in the market for materials with seed-to-sale accountability as well as greater consideration for the lifecycle of the finished product from manufacturing inputs to end-of-life planning. Adjusting processes that have been in place since their founding in 1849 has been an immense undertaking, both chemically and idealistically, but the results have been really well received in market. Mazzucchelli presented their work to ZEAL because they were familiar with the value we put on materials and manufacturing processes and the partnership couldn’t be stronger today.

ML: Could you also give some insight into the development of the e-llume plant-based lens? 

ZEAL: The e-llume lens is the result of our experience using plant oils to replace petroleum products in frame manufacturing. This began in 2011 with our commitment to producing every sunglass frame with Zresin castor-based plastics as opposed to petroleum plastics. We set out to use what we learned here to develop a lens with less petroleum oil than normal and the results have quite honestly exceeded our goals; oil from the castor plant helps us achieve a lens that is more crisp and clear while still offering protection from the sun and the rigors of everyday life.

ML: Do you see a point in the near future when ZEAL will use no crude oil in its production? 

ZEAL: The complete exclusion of petroleum products in manufacturing is not likely to happen in the near future and that’s not necessarily the end-goal of our sustainability brand pillar. We try to look more broadly at ways we can clean up and, in our belief, improve manufacturing whether it is material or process-directed approaches. We want to make sure in everything we do there is an eye on sustainability whether we are talking about manufacturing or printed materials.

More about ZEAL’s frame and lens technology here. Thanks to ZEAL’s Mike Lewis and Carl Walker for this interview.