Modern manufacturing places a heavy emphasis on sustainability. As such, it is no surprise to learn that an Italian company has come up with a biodegradable plastic they hope will eventually replace acetate in the manufacturing of sunglasses and prescription lens frames. They call their material M49. It is one of a new breed of plastic alternatives known as bioplastics.
A pair of sunglasses made with M49 is sustainable in the sense that the materials used to produce the frames come from sustainable resources. In addition, the sunglasses themselves will readily biodegrade once disposed of. It seems like M49 offers the best of both worlds. But will it usher in a whole new era of bioplastic sunglasses? Cost will ultimately call the shots.
1. Acetate Is Dirt Cheap
Olympic Eyewear is a Salt Lake City company that distributes wholesale sunglasses to retailers across the country. They design a few dozen of their own brands as well as importing a few others. They say that almost all plastic sunglasses are made from a material known as acetate.
Acetate is easy to produce and equally easy work with. Best of all, it is dirt cheap. Manufacturers can make eyewear frames for pennies, thanks to cheap raw materials and the economics of scale realized by mass production. Cheap acetate makes it possible to sell a par of sunglasses at retail for less than $25. If bioplastics can offer a similar cost-benefit ratio, it shouldn’t be hard to convince manufacturers to embrace it.
2. More About Bioplastics
The company behind M49 is Italy’s Mazzucchelli 1849. They rely on the European Bioplastic Association’s standard to define what a bioplastic is. In order to qualify, a plastic must be bio-based and biodegradable to be classified as a bioplastic. Simple enough, right? Maybe not.
You should be familiar with the concept of biodegradable materials. But what about bio-based materials? This is where the definition gets a bit cloudy. The European standard defines something as bio-based if its core components are natural and renewable. Thus, M49 is bio-based because it is derived from the cellulose acetate found in wood pulp.
It is commonly believed that petroleum-based plastics are not bio-based. Yet they meet the European standard. Petroleum is a natural substance. It is the result of natural decay. Animals and plants buried under the ground gradually decay. What is left becomes petroleum. In that sense, petroleum is also renewable.
In the end, a bio-based material is anything that meets the standard but is not derived from petroleum. That really seems to be the sticking point. Petroleum is considered neither natural nor renewable, even though it is.
3. Sunglasses Have to Be Affordable
Getting back to sunglasses, they have to be affordable or people will not buy them. Not only that, but they also have to be fairly priced. Customers want good value for money. If they feel that bioplastic brands are priced unfairly, they will not buy them.
Manufacturers need to be very cognizant of price should they decide to delve into the bioplastic arena. Whatever price points they come up with have to appeal to wholesale sunglasses distributors like Olympic. Those distributors have to be able to mark up their prices without alienating retailers who, in turn have to be cognizant of the prices they set.
Bioplastics may turn out to be the best materials the eyewear industry has seen in a long time. But cost will ultimately determine whether or not they replace traditional acetate. If the scientists developing new bioplastics can make the numbers work, manufacturers will use the materials. Otherwise, bioplastics will remain off the table.