The World Health Organization estimates that two-thirds of the approximately 270 million hearing-impaired people around the globe live in developing nations. Yet fewer than 10 million hearing aids are manufactured annually. The costs simply outweigh the demand from the poor in Africa, Latin America, Asia and beyond.
Innovations in Plastics Help Alter Imbalance
Plastics are enabling Solar Ear to bring down the cost of hearing aids while increasing their mobility and functionality. The Solar Ear hearing aid looks ordinary enough – just a cashew-shaped piece of plastic tucked behind the ear—but it costs a fraction of a typical hearing aid and is powered by batteries that are recharged in a plastic solar charger.
Plastics Make it Possible spoke with Howard Weinstein, Founder of Solar Ear, to learn how innovations in plastics are helping his company develop more affordable devices for the hearing impaired around the world.
Solar Ear Makes Hearing Possible
PMIP: You have a really interesting personal story—tell us how you ended up in Botswana creating a revolutionary new kind of hearing aid.
HW: Some time ago my healthy daughter Sarah suddenly died in the middle of the night. I went back to work the next week, and the company I worked for fired me. I was lost. I figured I had these skills as a business person, why not go as a volunteer to Africa, as a way to give meaning to my daughter’s death. According to the World Health Organization, there are about 270 million people who are hearing impaired. Two-thirds of them live in developing countries, and yet only 12% of hearing aids go to these countries. I felt like I could help.
PMIP: What is Solar Ear and how does it work?
HW: According to a 2009 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study, 77% of Americans cannot afford a hearing aid or the maintenance costs of a hearing aid, such as replacing batteries. So we developed a rechargeable hearing aid battery that costs the same as a regular zinc air battery but lasts two to three years and can fit into any hearing aid. To recharge the hearing aid battery, we invented a plastic solar charger that contains two AA rechargeable batteries. The batteries are charged by the sun and household light or even certain cell phone electrical cords. Then the hearing aid batteries are placed in the charger at night, usually a couple times a week. The solar charger also can be used to recharge AA batteries used in most small home appliances, including TV remote controls, smoke detectors, radios and more.
PMIP: How is Solar Ear different from other hearing aids?
HW: One of the main differences is that it is rechargeable. The other is that it costs a fraction of what a typical hearing aid costs and includes the solar charger and batteries that last for two to three years.
PMIP: What components of Solar Ear are made from plastic?
HW: The key to our success as a company is our solar charger, which is made from a high grade, UV-resistant plastic. We found this material to be of the highest quality to create a durable, lasting product that hearing impaired people around the world could use affordably. Also by using plastics in different colors, we were able to create hearing aids with a little bit of flair – something that greatly increases chances that some people will wear their hearing aids. The design of Solar Ear, which wouldn’t have been possible without plastic, has earned us a few major international design awards, as well as an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum and Alexander Graham Bell Museum.
PMIP: How do plastics make Solar Ear possible?
HW: Without the plastics we use for our solar charger we could not have achieved the durability and quality required for our customers. We made our product to be used in the most difficult of surroundings and circumstances, from rural villages in sub-Saharan Africa to the winters of northern Asia. Plastics also help our product be more fashionable, which gives some of our customers an added sense of confidence when wearing hearing aids.
PMIP: Solar Ear has a unique mentoring and employment program – tell us about that.
HW: Solar Ear is a sustainable social business run by people who are deaf. We hire the deaf that speak in sign language and have highly advanced hand eye coordination. We also train people in developing countries using employees from other developing countries, which is not typical in our field. For example, Solar Ear ran the first technical training course on electronic micro-soldering taught by our deaf experts in Botswana to deaf trainees in Brazil. Only 37% of the people who started this course passed and were certified to make our products. Another training project will be taught by our staff in Brazil to deaf Israeli and Palestinian young adults. We want this region of the world to hear the sounds of peace from youths who are deaf.
PMIP: What is your vision for the future for Solar Ear and people with hearing impairment?
HW: We have been able to show companies that have visited our factories the quality of work, and now these companies are starting to hire people who are deaf. They realize that these are people who are deaf and not deaf people. Secondly, we have been so successful that organizations are asking us to open in other countries, given we have proven technology and a proven business model, plus we transfer all technology for free. We have plans to open more affordable hearing aid programs, increasing the supply of hearing aids, and hiring more young adults who are deaf. And plastics will help make that possible.