Is Eyeglass Recycling a Waste of Money?

(Photo: torbakhopper)

Recycling your old eyeglasses may make you feel better, but, in Bloomberg View, Virginia Postrel argues that it’s actually a waste of money.  Postrel tracks the journey from eyeglass donation box to final destination — glasses are first shipped to their destination, where they’re sorted and evaluated for usefulness (only 7 per cent of donations are actually useable).  The numbers aren’t pretty.  “In a paper published in March in the journal Optometry and Vision Science, four researchers compare the full costs of delivering used glasses to the costs of instead delivering ready-made glasses in standard powers (like my drugstore readers, but for myopia as well),” writes Postrel. “The authors find that recycled glasses cost nearly twice as much per usable pair.” (HT: Marginal Revolution)

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  1. RiverVox says:

    After sorting for usefulness for redistribution, are the materials in the glasses recycled? If so, this would still be better than throwing them in the trash.

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  2. thor says:

    Howcome they do it then ?

    I am assuming that market forces are at work at some point ?

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  3. Phil says:

    Eyeglass prescriptions are very specific … what is the chance of finding someone with your exact prescription?

    Maybe you could just come as close as you can. But, in that case, why not do what the article says and use standard glasses? My dollar store sells them for a dollar. I’m sure in bulk they’d be a lot less than that.

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  4. Chris says:

    It sounds like the process is a little backwards and unnecessarily complex. Wouldn’t it in theory make more sense to have the glasses put into an envelope that also included a form that allowed people to write their prescription on the package. (Removing the need to personally inspect). Then, those glasses could all be transferred to one central location and held. If they are useable and match a need, they could be shipped. If the glasses aren’t usable, they could be broken down into their basic parts and used to replace broken pieces or as a frame for new lenses.

    Those parts/frames could also be refurbished and this could actually create a secondary market for glasses. So instead of having this year’s Guess glasses, you may be able to purchase the 2006 edition of the Guess glasses and have an updated lens put into the glasses.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      It’s pretty quick and easy to measure the prescription on a pair of lenses, and most people don’t actually know their numbers.

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      • notmelbrooks says:

        The reason that people don’t know there own prescriptions is that the optometrists collude with their preferred opticians to not reveal the numbers . That way the customer is forced to come back to the same place .

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  5. Lassie says:

    So that $200 and up pair of glasses I paid for and wore until I needed a new prescription, I should just throw into the trash? Maybe there are no competent people to actually handle this and it’s easier and of course cheaper to just send over crates full of dollar store magnifiers, I get it.

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    • lokee says:

      Throwing them in the trash is both cheaper AND environmentally better than recycling.

      [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

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    • Phil says:

      Your glasses aren’t actually worth $200. That price includes optician services, fancy lenses and coatings, cost of the guarantee, store rent, and so on.

      You can probably buy glasses similar to yours for $20 or so from one of those overseas internet sites. The site that mine came from has glasses for $6.95, including manufacture to your exact prescription and anti-scratch coating.

      So, a new pair for $6.95. Or: the cost of collecting yours, figuring out what prescription it is, shipping it to Africa, sorting and storing it, and waiting for someone to come along who needs that exact pair, or someone who’s close enough that it’s better than nothing.

      I bet the $6.95 wins. And I bet you could even get a better price than $6.95 for a large charity order.

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    • Clancy says:

      Glasses used to be worth hundreds because they were made of glass and had to be ground and polished to order. Today, they are made of polycarbonate and are stamped out by the thousands and only cost a few bucks to manufacture, the rest is just markup. You are only throwing out maybe $5-$10 of plastic and metal.

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      • Mike B says:

        The problem isn’t that glasses recycling is bad, just that the world changed to make it unnecessary. Sounds like the plight of so many unemployed today.

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      • I like Ike says:

        I’m not a Luddite because I realize that as long as the macro-economy keeps growing we all benefit in the long run.

        In the short-term, however, it’s focusing on the losers in Schumpeter’s process of “creative destruction” that potentially gums up the works if not approached with an awareness of the consequences of one’s actions.

        Students should taught the economic truths that their jobs are subject to the vicissitudes of the market place, and they should save, and have a reserve of moeny and talent to enable them to bend with the changes. I think at the rate that many young people change jobs these days, compared to their parents generation, that many are already adapted or adapting to these kinds of situations.

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    • Erik Dallas says:

      It is the $200+ feel good sales factor. If you put your old $200+ glasses in the trash you would know they were actually worth $6.95 for a specific prescription and coatings or $1 for uniform -3, -2, -1, +1, +2, +3. Thus your optometrist to help you feel good about paying $200+ for a new pair imparts in you a value statement by indicating that your old used pair actually are precious and valuable enough to ship to Africa for continued use… The recycling program helps sales, and helps validate the exorbitant cost you are paying. Thus the optometrist has an incentive to have a collection box, even if all they do is throw them in the trash at the end of the month…

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      • Peter says:

        Can I get a tax write-off for my $200 glasses? Saving $75 on my tax bill while delivering $7 value to someone would be great!

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    • Kathryn says:

      The thing is, you’ve been duped if you’ve paid $200 for a pair of specs. A pair of standard single vision glasses can be had for $10 online. Bi and Tri focals will be more, but not that much more. The optical business is pretty interesting. We’ve been led down a path which suggests that we have to have an exact prescription. Which is better, one or two? one or two? And all of us have had an, ” I don’t know moment” but we’re obliged to answer and we all know that ‘Both are OK” is not an acceptable answer. Then, of course there is the old get a new prescription every year. Putting your eyes in the equivalent of a plaster cast and never taking it off is probably not a good long term answer, and it’s a shame that Opticians charge as much as they do. Guess they need to make a living too.

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      • Loren Pechtel says:

        Some of us really do require an exact prescription. If my lenses are 1/4 diopter off they will give me a headache after some hours of use.

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  6. Eric M. Jones says:

    Great study and not hard to believe. I wonder what will happen to my titanium dental implants when I get cremated? I can hear them clink around in my jar of ashes. Somewhere out there a child is waiting for me to die.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

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  7. kevin says:

    I love it when Freakonomics reads my mind.

    I had new glasses made last week. The optometrist takes the old glasses and puts them in a device that determines the prescription.

    If, during that process, a very simple label with the quality, prescription and other data could be printed, couldn’t (and perhaps even submitted to a larger database), couldn’t I then receive an email or look online with a key (again, generated by the prescription device) to see where the best match would be to send my glasses?

    So the process would work like this:

    Get eyes checked; have old prescription verified.

    Prescription data submitted to database/ exchange.

    I go home, log on to http://www.donateglasses.whatever and look up to see if there is a match.

    I print the label and information, and place in the mail with postage.

    That would save on the “centralized storage” cost and insure that I have a match.

    Yes, prescriptions vary, and I’m no optometrist, but you could take someone who is 20/100 and get them to 20/30 or 20/50 and it would be an improvement, right?

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Then you spend $8 or $10 to ship it, and then the person who receives them says, “Yuck, these are ugly. Is that really what they’re wearing in the rich countries these days?”

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  8. J3P says:

    As noted before, glasses are actually very cheap. We buy our personal glasses online for about 12$/ pair if you want titanium memory frames and a couple of perks. It is cheaper without the additions. All you have to do is put in your prescription, choose what additions you want and the style and they will ship it your door. Furthermore I am volunteering with an organization that donates used glasses to those impoverished in Peru. The organization dose not get enough childrens glasses so they mass-order these online from china for $2/ pair. This summer we will be donating 20,000 pairs of used glasses, so at the rate of $2/pair that would be $40,000. While this article points out that the donation of glasses costs more than to produce them the article doesn’t take into account the practicality of the situation. In order to accomplish the same good we would have to raise 40,000 dollars. While to clean, sort, and label the used glasses costs time there are those who are willing to donate the time to do it. In the end we will save about $38,900. The eyeglass clinics in Peru will be ran by study abroad students from Utah State University who will also gain a valuable experience in seeing the poorer more real side of the country. The beneficiaries will be pre-screened out by partners in Peru so only those who are unable to ever purchase their own glasses will benefit. Also because of the volume of glasses that will be donated each beneficiary will get a prescription that works and will be able to chose from 3-4 different styles. It is a great program dependent on donations of used glasses that will help thousands who have never been able to see clearly in their lives.

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