by Amy Slack6 minute read
A time comes in a lot of people’s lives when things start to become a bit blurry. Realising it’s not simply the side effect of a heavy night out, you take the dreaded trip to the opticians and discover that you no longer have perfect eye-sight and would benefit from corrective eyewear. Since that moment in my early 20s, my eyesight has very slowly been getting worse, my prescription changing slightly about every two years. I recently had my annual eye test and, predictably, was told that my prescription had once again changed: I now have astigmatism – great!
Since I had invested a fair amount of money in new glasses only two years previous – and since they were still fine – I thought it would be both more environmentally conscientious and cheaper just to get the lenses replaced and keep the frames. Imagine how shocked I was to be told that it would in fact be considerably cheaper to buy both new lenses and frames from the optician’s standard collection new lenses. This makes little sense in light of the environmental policies which many high street opticians have adopted, and the result will be unnecessary waste. With opticians paying little heed to the principles of the waste hierarchy and environmentally sustainability, what are the options for the bespectacled environmentalist?
Four eyes good, two eyes better?
Both contact lenses and glasses are made of plastic, so until manufacture from alternative materials takes off – there have been trials, for example, using soy – we are stuck with petroleum based eyewear. The optically challenged but environmentally conscious consumer may then ask: how much plastic goes into glasses compared to contact lenses? Whilst all lenses are plastic, frames can be a mixture of both metal and plastic; however, for the purpose of this comparison, let’s assume a mostly plastic frame.
Based on some quick primary research, the average weight of glasses worn in Eunomia’s Bristol office is 24.4 grams, and glasses are generally replaced every two years (the frequency at which most users get their prescription updated). According to a 2003 study conducted by Eurolens Research, a single pair of soft contact lenses weighs approximately 25mg, which over two years totals 0.6g of plastic for monthly lenses and 18.25g for dailies. So, even if I went with daily lenses, I’d still be consuming less plastic then if I opted for a pair of glasses.
Still, you may ask: what about the associated waste produced by contact lenses? The Eurolens Research study also looked at this issue, comparing one brand of daily disposable lenses that did not require cleaning and one pair of monthly disposables requiring daily cleaning. A year’s worth of daily lenses (360 pairs, in the study) produced 953g of plastic between the lenses themselves and their blister packaging. Twelve pairs of monthlies, with 12 carrying cases and 12 bottles of cleaning solution, produced 549g. Glasses, on the other hand come with very little waste. Even if you were to count glasses cases as waste, these seem to be a maximum of 115g, which is nowhere near the amount produced by contact lenses. In addition, there’s the issue of where all this waste ends up: many people simply flush contact lenses down the toilet, thus contributing to the problem of marine plastics and causing harm to aquatic life.
Information relating to a full Life cycle analysis of eyewear is scarce; however, there are snippets out there. Bausch + Lomb suggests that making one pair of soft contact lenses produces approximately 0.29 pounds of CO2 equivalent, whereas Vision-Ease has estimated the comparable figure for a pair of eyeglass lenses to be 10.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent. This suggests that wearing daily disposable contacts for two years would contribute around 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than wearing a pair of glasses over the same period. However, this does not account for frames, raw material production, and all peripheral packaging items such as plastic bottles and cardboard boxes. It’s therefore difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions on the lifecycle impacts of the two options.
I have to confess, I do on occasion use contact lenses for sport and at weekends, but I thought that in light of the above research I would give monthly lenses a go, negating the need for glasses at all. Unfortunately the risk of infection increases with monthly lenses, which I discovered first hand after developing an eye ulcer within the first two months of my trial – a potentially blinding condition which subsequently put me off this option. So it looks like, for me at least, either glasses or daily disposable lenses are the only real choice. Given that the amounts of plastic between these two options are not vastly different but that the amount of waste and CO2 equivalent produced by daily lenses is so high, sticking with glasses is looking increasingly like the most environmentally friendly option for me.
So I’m back to square one, and still left wondering if I should pay extra just to get new lenses, or go with the cheaper option of new glasses and frames. OK, so I’m not poor, but equally I’m not the wealthiest person in the world and every bit of money that stays in the bank helps. However, if I did go down the new glasses and frames road, it’s going to matter what I can do with my old pair of specs.
Thankfully, where I live in Bristol it’s possible to put your old glasses out with the recycling. They are then passed on to the charity Vision Aid Overseas, which takes them to developing countries to help improve the sight of people whom would otherwise not have access to any professional eye care. If your local council does not provide this service, many high street opticians run a similar scheme, or you can always send your old glasses directly to Vision Aid Overseas yourself.
Alternatively, if you want to keep your existing frames, rather than going through the high-street there are re-glazing companies out there such as Glasses Direct which will re-glaze existing lenses for as little as £25. I would be looking at a slightly more expensive option with scratch resistant and anti-reflective glasses, but this would still be a lot cheaper than anything I’ve been offered on the high-street.
For me, the obvious choice is to get my existing lenses re-glazed though a web-based service. This seems to be the cheapest and least wasteful option, so a win-win as far as I can tell – although this does not account for the impact of transporting glasses to the manufacturer.
However, the majority of optically challenged consumers are likely to be motivated more by considerations of convenience than environmental performance. Therefore, many shoppers will likely just take the high-street option, which can often be the most unfriendly to both the environment and the wallet. We should be calling for high-street opticians to take more responsibility for preventing glasses waste by making it cheaper just to re-place/re-glaze lenses. Hopefully, we won’t need distance glasses to see a time when opticians truly begin to live up to the environmental policies and recycling principles which many espouse.