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I can see clearly, now the waste has gone! An interview with George Bailey, Co-founder of Coral Eyewear 

George Bailey, the co-founder of Coral Eyewear, talked to business writer Huw Sayer about redefining how people see plastic waste and Norwich BID’s free-to-join Upcycle Your Waste project for SMEs.

When George started studying Politics Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at University of East Anglia (UEA) he didn’t think it would lead to him starting a company in his second year. However, the course leans towards environmental issues and encourages students to explore practical ways of applying ethical thinking. One particular module included a project to develop ideas for tackling plastic pollution.

“I was shocked to discover that more than 600,000 tonnes of abandoned fishing gear, particularly nylon nets, enter our oceans every year,” explains George. “Each net can take an estimated 600 years to break down, during which time it is likely to harm or kill 24,000 marine animals on average. Inspired by one of my heroes, David Attenborough, I decided to make tackling this marine pollution the focus of my project.

“Some students chose to work on preventing the pollution but I decided to look at how to remove the plastic that was already a problem by creating an ethical business. That got me thinking about whether we could turn the nylon waste into a commercial product and so create a financial incentive for recovering it. Then I remembered a conversation I’d had with my Dad, Calvin, about sourcing ethical glasses frames and so was born the Coral Eyewear idea.”

Calvin Bailey is a successful business leader who has run a number of independent opticians and is now a consultant to the industry. He’d told George that he had struggled to find anyone who could supply high quality glasses frames made from sustainable materials. All the recycled frames he’d seen failed to match the aesthetics and performance of frames made from virgin plastic.  

“Around 34 million people in the UK wear glasses and every year the industry produces some 9m new frames, made mostly from virgin plastic,” says George. “That plastic derives from crude oil, which means its production is already contributing to climate change. We saw an opportunity to change that but we needed a way of producing industry grade nylon without adding to the demand for unsustainable raw materials.


British design, Italian ingenuity, global benefits

“During the course of my research I came across an Italian company called Aquafil that makes an amazing sustainable nylon called ECONYL®. They use a patented regeneration process to return waste nylon, such as fishing nets and fabric scraps, to its pure compound form, indistinguishable from that produced using traditional methods. The process effectively creates a ‘closed loop’ in that ECONYL® can be repeatedly recycled, remoulded and upcycled to create new products.

“Unlike normal recycled plastics, there are no issues with product quality, colouring or durability. This makes it ideal for high-end fashion items, including sportswear and furnishings, as well as our frames, which come with a 2-year guarantee. By collecting waste plastic from all over the world, particularly from oceans and landfills, the company is helping to reduce pollution and conserve resources.”

George worked with the team at Aquafil to adapt their process to produce plastic pellets suitable for injection moulding machines. Aquafil also helped him find a small artisan manufacturer near to their HQ in Italy that could turn his designs into finished frames. At the same time, he has worked with designers in London and Edinburgh to create bespoke Coral Eyewear designs.

“Most producers use standard industry moulds under licence to produce their frames, which means you find the same shapes repeated across different ranges. As well as using fully sustainable plastic, we wanted our frames to be unique to us. We hold the intellectual property rights to our bespoke designs;” he concludes, “this means they are only available through us or our distribution partners.”

Coral Eyewear Gold Sunglasses

Building a business and a brand

George’s tutors were so impressed with his business idea that they nominated him, successfully, for a UEA Impact Award in early 2020 and agreed he could work on the business for his ‘year in enterprise’. His winnings helped fund research and development costs and a soft launch at the 100% Optical trade show in February. He used the COVID-19 lockdown to refine his designs and line up 50 independent stockists (including four in Norfolk) before officially launching the ‘Endangered’ range of six designs in October 2020.

His commitment to upcycling and sustainability extends to offering his customers a 10% discount on their next purchase if they return their old Coral Eyewear for ECONYL® regeneration. Unlike competitors who spray their frames with lacquers and gloss varnishes, which can also damage the environment, George leaves his frames with a matt finish after polishing, which makes it easier to recycle them. Even the product packaging, including plastic cases and cleaning cloths, is fully recycled or recyclable, as are his brochures.

Coral Eyewear has attracted celebrity endorsements from the likes of Holly Willoughby and Gaby Logan, and has a long-term partnership with Formula E racing driver Alexander Sims. More recently, the UEA introduced George to entrepreneur, philanthropist and TV personality, Jake Humphrey who has since become an investor and brand advocate for the company. Jake sponsors a media studies scholarship at the UEA and George has committed to funding a climate change scholarship when Coral Eyewear is successful.

Outside Colemans George Bailey Radley Fenn Jake Humphrey Coral Eyewear Sept 2020 27 117 Mark Ivan Benfield

How can you be a part of the Upcycling revolution?

The work that George is doing with Coral Eyewear and the regeneration technology that creates ECONYL® raises a fundamental question: do we really need new plastic? Perhaps we have created more plastic than we will ever need and, with the right techniques, could now permanently recycle all that we have. Of course, no one company can create a fully circular economy on its own – instead you need many large and small brands to embrace the idea and inspire others to look at sustainable upcycling alternatives.

Thankfully, there is a now a strong business case for looking at such alternatives. For a start, there is a growing demand for ethically and sustainably produced goods among consumers who are willing to pay a premium for brands that put purpose before profit. Alongside that, there are potential costs savings for businesses from using recycled or upcycled materials rather than raw materials, particularly those made from fossil fuels that are facing increased carbon taxes.

Norwich BID believes that Norfolk businesses have an excellent opportunity to get ahead of this curve, which is why we are running the Upcycle Your Waste project in the Greater Norwich area.

Our aim is to help companies analyse and aggregate their waste streams, and identify ways that they and partner organisations can upcycle these into valuable new products, while reducing environmental impact. We have been conducting research over the last six months but will soon be moving into the exciting phase of developing business cases, which will lead to the piloting of a number of possible solutions in 2021.

You can read all about the project, and find out how your business can get involved, on our website. If you would like a free waste audit, please get in touch. We are keen to stick our heads in your bins.

Find out more Upcycle Your Waste

Read the previous interview in our Upcycle Your Waste series, with Joe Hill, co-founder of One Planet Pizza.