The business of sustainability is booming. Companies worldwide are turning their attention to creating products that are as eco-friendly as possible through sustainably sourcing, giving back or making the core product components from recycled materials — and the eyeglasses industry is no different.
With eyeglass companies like Sea2See Eyewear and Solo Eyewear leading the eco-war with recycled eyeglasses, they've seen significant positive feedback from customers. So it's no wonder that other eyeglass companies like Dick Moby, are increasingly joining the bandwagon and looking to green their eyewear.
But exactly how do we start turning around our products to be more eco-friendly? And what processes should we be following? Going more environmentally friendly has its benefits when done correctly and not for greenwashing purposes. Before deciding to switch up your operations, let's discuss everything you may not know about manufacturing recycled and green eyeglasses.
The war on single-use plastics
It's no surprise that there have been issues with products and how environmentally friendly they are. Recently, one of the most significant points to come under the spotlight is of single-use plastics. It's drawn lots of controversies and has become a global issue as these plastics aren't easily recyclable.
As consumers become more aware of issues, and businesses held more responsible by their stakeholders, there is a need for more eco-friendly products. Whether you are a small or large business, no consumer really wants to buy plastic sunglasses and knowingly contribute to the pollution problem — it simply does not make them feel good to be part of the problem.
So the eyewear industry has started to tackle the problem, by capturing the polluting plastic and making it into frames and lenses for your eyeglasses.
The impact of single-use plastics
As pointed out, the main concern with single-use plastics is that they're made to be disposable. These plastics are usually used once and then thrown away or recycled (often the latter as recycling these plastics is usually tricky). As plastics don't biodegrade (they photodegrade), they'll slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics. They will eventually contaminate soil, water & food.
You can find most of these plastics in packaging, which accounts for about half of the plastic waste in the world. And unfortunately, many companies just think about the product rather than the packaging. For example, when a consumer receives their eco-friendly glasses, the packaging (usually made of single-use plastic) is then thrown away! Not just that, but when eyeglasses are shipped to their destination, the packages (often made up of plastics that aren’t environmentally friendly or recyclable) end up in landfills. In essence, your ecofocus should not only be about the product, but your entire production from supply to delivery.
Even though recycling is much better than throwing them away, only 9% of the nine billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. Most end up in landfills, dumps, the environment or in the air (burning the plastic but releasing harmful gasses like furan and dioxin). The most cited barrier for such low volume recycling comes down to the variety of plastics. There's just too many and since they can't be recycled together, sorting and collecting different types of plastics takes a lot of time.
The best way to make sure that your plastic comes from reliable and sustainable recycling sources is to test and evaluate your supply chain. Testing your raw materials ensures your compliance with the environmental regulations in your area, and gives you a detailed overview of your entire eyeglass production process, which is just good business. Not testing though, can have drastic negative impacts on your brand and business, for example, the case with McDonald's paper straws.
Regardless, recycling plastic is still a much better alternative to throwing them away after one use. Let's take a look at some star examples of companies who are using recycled material in their eyewear to tackle the environmental pollution problems.
SOLO has a wide range of eco-friendly eyewear, and the company believes in respecting our planet. Their eyewear is created from recycled plastics, repurposed bamboos & acetate. On top of this, every pair of glasses you buy, Solo will donate towards eye surgeries and fund prescriptions for people in developing countries.
Modo's eyewear brand ECO is made of 95% recycled plastics and steel and is the first consumer company to receive an Environmental Claims Validation (ECV) from Underwriter Laboratory (UL). In addition to using recycled eyewear, for every frame you buy, the company will plant a tree to support clean air, in partnership with Trees for the Future.
Hong Kong eyewear company Okia has recently announced the launch of their first sustainable eyewear collection Reshape. The collection contains eyewear exclusively made from recycled plastic bottles (PET) with a biodegradable lens named the bio lens 2.0.
Many other companies pursue environmentally friendly practices (Swell Vision, Blue Planet Eco-Eyewear, Ozeano, to name a few more), and evidence is showing that it's been working in their favor. Their brand and products are getting more buzz and hype as they set a precedent for product innovations to come. But how exactly are they recycling these materials to create new glasses? Let's take a look at the most common material for recycling: plastic.
How recycled eyeglasses are made
In general, plastic recycling for eyeglasses can follow these steps (processes can vary based on different types of plastics):
Plastics are collected through recycling programs or from collection points.
Once brought in, the plastics go through a sorting process where they're grouped based on their resin code (RID). Universally, plastic is categorized into six different forms;
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
- High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
- Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polystyrene or Styrofoam (PS)
The sorting step is vital in the recycling process. If not done properly, when you go to remelt your plastics, they can phase-separate (like oil and water).
3. Shredding & Washing
The sorted plastics are shredded and washed before they are processed further. The goal here is to remove any impurities or non-plastic items that could have made its way into the batch, such as a paper label stuck to the material.
4. Melting & Pelletizing
The final stage sees the plastics melted and smashed together to form plastic pellets. These pellets can then be used in the production of other products, like making recycled eyeglass frames!
Unfortunately, not all plastics can be recycled. Resin classifications like PVC, PS, and others not listed aren't recyclable due to their toxicity to humans. Furthermore, not all plastics will maintain their quality through continuous recycling. Each time plastic is recycled, to keep competitive with other products in the markets, manufacturers usually add virgin plasticizers to help improve the integrity of the recycled plastic. Hence why even some 'greener' spectacles are not 100% made from recycled materials.
In reality, plastic can only be recycled around three times before the quality significantly decreases where it can no longer be used. Other options implemented have been a ban on plastics, and as of 2019, more than 60 countries have already introduced bans and levies to curb single-use plastic waste. Even Africa is coming onboard with banning single-use plastics, implementing bans on plastic bags in countries like Rwanda, where they have large signs reading “Use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited”.
So what about Acetate?
Besides recycled plastic, many of the companies mentioned above are also using cellulose acetate in their eyewear — citing it's environmentally friendly and natural benefits.
First developed in the 1860s, cellulose acetate is a non-petroleum plastic that is made from natural cotton and wood fibers. It's well-known and widely praised for a high-quality, glossy, and flexible structure — making it the choice material for eyeglasses. The material also has the most extensive range for transparency, vibrant colors, and finishes. Even better, since acetate is made from natural materials, unlike man-made fibers, technically speaking, it comes from a renewable resource and should be biodegradable?
While most of this is true, little research has been done to understand the environmental impact of acetate. Acetate was inherently created to resist degradation, so it really shouldn't biodegrade as claimed by most eyewear companies.
Even worse, manufacturing acetate also has limited research around the topic. Good quality acetate is mainly manufactured in Italy, where broader EU manufacturing regulation can monitor the environmental impact. But there are also acetate manufacturers in China, which is traditionally less stringent with manufacturing regulations. Without much information about the process though, we can assume that acetate can be doing more harm than good to the environment there. All the ingredients to make acetate are highly dangerous substances (acetic acid, acetic anhydride, and sulfuric acid). This waste can be harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly.
All-in-all, acetate seems to be the better option than virgin plastics to create eyewear. Recycling acetate is technically possible, and acetate in cigarette buts is an example, but otherwise, not enough information is out there about acetate recycling to assess its impacts.
Of course, there are other materials other than plastic and acetate that you can consider when creating your eyewear. Such as recycled woods and metals. While these materials are more eco-friendly than plastics, you also need to look at the entire manufacturing process. For example, titanium, a typical metal for frames, can produce extremely toxic waste during production of the metal. The process for making titanium creates sulfuric acid waste or chlorine gas that can leak into the water or air, and have devastating effects on the environment.
As the environmental movement grows, and more policies and regulations start to become enforced. It seems the best trend in eyewear is to create eyeglasses that recycle, rather than creating eyeglasses from recycled materials. That's why biodegradable products are trending — as we need to start thinking about the future of products after their uses.
To help the environment from a manufacturing point, we need to ensure that our wastes and products can have a sustainable end-life to be reused into other products.
Your best option is to test!
Regardless if you're creating eyeglasses from acetate, recycled metals or recycled plastics — going green is here to stay. What's important though is to make sure your factory, processes, and product quality is compliant and tracked.
There have been cases where PEL tested the rubber on the eyewear 'ears' that burned irregularly and hardened because the sub-supplier changed the chemical used to cure the rubber — subsequently failing the toxicology and quality lab tests. This came from a sub-supplier that has been producing high-quality rubber eyewear products for decades, but a simple change in curing the materials made their product chemically unsafe and over 10,000 pieces of eyewear had to be recalled. It’s not only important to test eyewear at the onset, but to keep tabs on sub-suppliers as well with a zero tolerance policy.
At PEL, we offer testing and auditing services to help you ensure environmental compliance and verification. We can provide our services to help you understand your supply chain in more detail, and spot opportunities to improve environmentally, without losing out on quality.
If you’re interested to switching your eyeglasses to be more environmentally friendly, reach out to us today.