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)


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.


Howcome they do it then ?

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


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.


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


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 .


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.


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

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Eric M. Jones

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.

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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 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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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?"


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.