We investigate the world of sustainable eyewear.
There are 2 million people in the UK living with sight loss (healthwatch.co.uk). So, for a lot of us, eyewear is an essential. However, sadly, both glasses and contact lenses are not waste-free. The UK throws over 750 million contact lenses down the drain or into landfill every year. This inevitably end up filling oceans with microplastics (opticalexpress.co.uk). Meanwhile, eyewear frames from glasses are cut from a sheet material acetate with a staggering 80 per cent of this plastic sheet being thrown away. So how can we keep a better eye on our planet and our vision? We take a look at the options.
Contact lenses are a more convenient choice for some as they cause less vision distortions and obstructions. For example, unlike glasses, there is no fear of them getting in the way when exercising. However, contact lenses are not biodegradable, nor do they last long periods of time as they built for either daily or monthly use. This means they have to be disposed of regularly.
“Typically all lenses are made from CR39 plastic resin, which is incredibly hard to recycle,” says Freddie Elborne, founder of sustainable eyewear brand, MONC. “However, it’s very hard to avoid using this material because of the extensive diversity of prescriptions out there, and the cost of producing.”
Can I recycle them?
In fact, 39 per cent of those who wear contact lenses either ‘aren’t sure if they can’ or ‘believe they can’t recycle lenses’, according to recent research by Johnson & Johnson Vision. While it’s not as simple as throwing your used lenses in the recycling bin, they can be reused for other purposes. It’s advised you collate your old lenses and let a big brand recycle them for you. Boots Opticians partnered with ACUVUE and TerraCycle last year to launch a nationwide recycling programme for lens disposal. There is now a network of recycling bins at public drop-off locations at optical stores across the UK. The end result will see the recycled contact lenses and packaging turned into new products such as outdoor furniture.
A new alternative
That said, there are some contact lenses being developed which will be soy-based (clspectrum.com) – a much-needed biodegradable alternative to plastic. But in the meantime, which is better, daily or monthly contact lenses? As daily contact lenses don’t require cleaning, you eliminate the need for contact lens solution contained in a plastic bottle. However, it’s tricky to advocate a single-use item. This is where monthly’s could be seen to have the advantage as they at least last longer.
“We find that daily disposable contact lenses are extremely wasteful. They are usually a single-use plastic product and studies estimate that anywhere from six to 10 metric tons of plastic lenses end up in wastewater in the US alone each year,” says Freddie. “Contacts tend to be denser than water, which means they sink, and this could ultimately pose a threat to aquatic life.”
Whichever you choose, just make sure you recycle your lenses once you’re finished with them. Another option entirely is a pair of glasses. The average person upgrades their specs at least every two years. During this time, your prescription may have changed, or your lenses or frames might have cracked or lost their shape. One option is to choose an environmentally-conscious brand who make their glasses from sustainable materials, like MONC, for example.
“Our new Conscious collection is a re-evaluation of every element that goes into an eyewear product,” explains Freddie. “From our extensive research in eyewear frames, we estimate that 100,000 tonnes of plastic is wasted every year around the world. Not all of this is put into landfill, but we believe that most of it is. There are not yet the facilities available to eyewear manufacturers that allows them to recycle their waste in a cost efficient way.”
If and when your glasses are no longer fit for purpose, donate them. New Eyes takes old glasses in America, then recycles and distributes them to vision-impaired people who are unable to afford their own vision aids. The programme distributes about 70 per cent of their donations. Lions Club also runs a reuse initiative in countries including Australia, Canada, Spain, Italy and South Africa, and is said to recycle about 37 per cent of all donations. And don’t worry, this scheme also runs in the UK. You’ll be able to find Lions Club donation boxes in Marie Curie charity shops.
It turns out sustainability and eyewear could well be in our sights after all.