Ali Rose VanOverbeke is settling into a new apartment in downtown Flint when we catch up with her on a morning in mid-July. The only furnishings are a bed, two nightstands, and an air mattress for her business partner, whom she's just picked up from the airport. The purpose of the move? To launch Genusee Eyewear, a company that aims to upcycle hundreds of thousands of empty water bottles left behind in Flint's water crisis.
VanOverbeke, a metro Detroit native, took a winding road to get to Flint. At 18, she set off for New York, where she studied fashion design at the New School's Parsons School of Design and embarked on what appeared as if it would be a traditional fashion career, working for mass retailers like Lane Bryant and Joe Fresh. But she quickly grew disillusioned with the waste generated by an industry built on ephemeral trends.
"In those jobs I really started realizing how unsustainable the fashion industry is," VanOverBeke says. "It's one of the largest polluting industries in the world. And at the end of the day I was like, 'Why am I making more shit that people don't really need?'"
So VanOverbeke set about looking for more purposeful design work. A fellowship through Parsons allowed VanOverbeke to take on her first community engagement project — a textile collaboration with Living Arts Detroit, a nonprofit focused on youth empowerment. She then moved to India to join an organization helping victims of domestic abuse gain financial independence through textile production. When she came back to the U.S., alarmingly high lead levels in Flint's water supply had put the city under a state of emergency.
"I flew home on Christmas Day [of 2015] and was shocked to hear about and see what was happening in my own backyard," she says. "I was like, 'OK, if I can fly around the world to India to help someone else, why am I not doing that here?'"
Almost immediately, VanOverbeke began distributing bottled water to Flint residents through the Red Cross. But it wasn't long before she keyed in on another type of waste.
"We were delivering semitrucks full of water to people every day; there would just be stacks and stacks of bottled water in front of people's houses," she says. "So now — not only is a water crisis happening, but there's this influx of plastic that's going to create environmental issues for the community."
With estimates suggesting the average one-time-use bottle of water takes at least 450 years to degrade, recycling was highly encouraged in Flint. But recycling is a commercial industry that functions for profit, and, right now, demand for recycled plastic products is low — namely because it's cheaper for companies to use virgin plastics.
So VanOverbeke began trying to imagine a solution to this problem, and enlisted the help of past collaborator and former classmate, Jack Burns. After hearing from countless Flint residents that what the city needs most is jobs, the two decided to create a company to reduce the water bottle waste by upcycling it into designer products people need. When Burns suggested eyeglasses, VanOverbeke says it was a no-brainer.
"[The glasses are] something that's on your face; they're a conversation starter," she says. "It allows you to tell the story behind them and bring up the conversation of sustainability and environmental justice."
Several microgrants and fundraisers later, the pair have developed a prototype and received 800 pre-orders for their glasses, which retail for $129 each. A total of 15 water bottles are used to make each pair, case, and polishing cloth, which means VanOverbeke and Burns will launch their business upcycling more than 10,000 bottles of water. Two years from now, they hope to have at least 15 Flint residents employed.
From our 2018 People Issue.
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