For most people February’s unseasonably warm weather across Europe presented the enticing prospect of swapping from a winter coat to a lighter jacket, but for Sebastiaan de Neubourg, founder of W.R.Yuma, creators of 3D printed sunglasses made from used car dashboards, it meant full steam ahead, the sunglasses months had started early.
The company’s full name, We Are Yuma, takes its inspiration from the city of Yuma in Arizona, USA, officially the sunniest place on the planet. For Sebastiaan, a former circular economy consultant, it’s the result of years spent scribbling post-it notes full of ideas that he was determined to transform into a product that could fully utilise the principles of the circular economy.
The circular economy should become cool, it should become mainstream, rather than just for those who care about it.
“At some point I just got bored talking about it and leaving ideas on post-its and having other people do the cool projects, and I’m just advising. I quit my job a bit more than 3 years ago and decided I needed a project where I could start as many of the concepts that I worked with as possible. So there’s circular economy, 3D printing, crowd-sourcing, open source design, biomimicry; this whole package that I’m trying to use and stuff into a product.”
Despite his knowledge, it wasn’t an entirely simple process. Some ideas, such as a desire to build circular housing, had to fall by the wayside due to the difficulty of attempting such a project as a lone entrepreneur.
“I really tried to find the sweet spot of stuff that I could make myself,” says Sebastiaan. “So something that you do on your own, something that would tell the story, something that would put the circular economy in a modern way of seeing sustainability. Sustainability is still quite often seen as ‘green eco fluffy’ for the ones who are into it. That was one of the reasons for sunglasses actually, because it allows the coolness factor to come in. The circular economy should become cool, it should become mainstream, rather than just for those who care about it.”
The current standard method of creating sunglasses is inherently wasteful. Frames made from virgin plastic are machine cut out of a large sheet with the excess material sent to landfill. It was an opportunity waiting to be taken and a lightbulb moment for Sebastiaan, who recognised the process could be simplified and made sustainable through the use of 3D printing from waste plastic.
I iterated and experimented so much that I almost wore out my first 3D printer just by experimentation.
“Car dashboards are a good source of plastic because they’re made from ABS. ABS is the same plastic as Lego bricks, so it’s very strong, it’s quite easy to work with, and it’s a common source of plastic waste.”
He teamed up with Better Future Factory, an organisation specialised in sourcing plastic waste to transform into ‘ink’ filaments for 3D printers, and invested in his own printer. Then the work really began. When asked to recall how many printing attempts it took to get somewhere, he laughs at the memory.
“Wow! Thousands! Really! I iterated and experimented so much that I almost wore out my first 3D printer just by experimentation. Because it hasn’t been done before so you kind of have to re-engineer something relatively easy but also something relatively complex as a pair of sunglasses, and see how you can make this 3D printable. And it takes a while.”
The 3D printing method meant the unusable scrap frames were saved and reformulated back into new printing filament. But the process has wider benefits for a business operator dedicated to avoiding waste: “Another advantage is that you indeed only print what you need, but you also only print the models that you need,” he says. “If you ordered from a sunglasses line say in Italy, you would have to order 500 pairs of this model and 500 pairs of that model, otherwise your price per piece will go up tremendously. That’s something we don’t have, so if we only sell five pairs, we only print five. If we sell 500, then we print 500. So we never get any excess production, so we never get any waste that comes from that.”
I really wanted to make something which is accessible and not make it into this high fashion, out-of-reach product.
A public misconception that comes up often for makers creating new products from waste sources is the idea that their materials are either incredibly cheap or potentially free. Not so, says Sebastiaan, in fact it’s quite the opposite.
“It’s actually more expensive. There are just more people involved. When you have a piece of plastic like car dashboards you need to have someone who takes out the car dashboard, and takes the car dashboard to the shredder. The shredding machine needs to be paid and the electricity for that machine, then whatever comes out of the machine needs to be turned into pellets. You need heat for that as the pellets need to be turned into 3D printing filaments, so you need people doing that and since the industry is rather new, it’s not as big or optimised as the virgin plastic producing companies. And if you want to recycle plastic you have to take out the fire retardants, for example, that are put in there because they’re needed for car safety, so that makes it expensive.”
The production method is now so fine-tuned that it’s allowed Sebastiaan to run the company as a one-man show, he’s the designer, manufacturer and the operating team behind the W.R.Yuma venture. For him, the journey has been worth it to achieve his goal of establishing a circular brand that realistically demonstrates the zero waste capabilities of the circular economy.
“That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to quit my consultancy job, because I wanted to make something tangible, something physical. I really wanted to make something which is accessible and not make it into this high fashion, out-of-reach product. Because then it really bypasses the whole idea of sustainable fashion, it shouldn’t be something just for the elite or those who can afford it.”
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