Supplier insight

Seeing lens waste clearly

OT  spoke to three eyewear brands about the challenge of lens waste, demo lenses, and potential solutions

A smartphone displays a white screen with the recycling icon of three arrows pointing in a rounded triangle. The phone lies against a white net bag.
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For spectacle wearers, the availability of more environmentally-friendly options in eyewear design is increasing. Frames can be made from recycled materials, or bio-acetates, for example, and packaging is increasingly made from responsibly-sourced products.

One aspect of eyewear that doesn’t receive quite as much attention is that of lenses and the waste that can be incurred in the process of creating and supplying eyewear – whether lens swarf, or demo lenses.

Gavin Parker, co-founder and COO of Waterhaul, a social enterprise turning abandoned fishing gear and nets into frames, told OT: “The issue of lens waste should be at the forefront of sustainability discussions in the eyewear industry. Billions of lenses are estimated to be incinerated or end up in landfill every year, which, being made of plastic, may remain in the environment for hundreds of years.”

James Conway, CEO at Millmead Group, which introduced the Cameo Sustain range, made from recycled PET, last year, noted that many lenses are made from thermoset plastics, which are difficult to break down – and to re-form.

“We’ve spent quite a lot of time over the last two to three years looking at solutions for lens waste: reducing the amount of lens waste in some ways, by reusing them for other products within the industry,” he said.

“Rather than shifting the problem to other industries, we’re trying to find more of a closed-loop solution to the problem, so that whatever waste we generate goes into another product in the industry, which can be recycled,” Conway explained, admitting: “It’s not been easy. It’s taken longer than I thought it would.”

He also emphasised that: “demo lenses are part of the problem. There is no getting away from the fact that demo lenses are everywhere.”

Use of demo lenses

The explanations for why demo lenses are used range from branding to aesthetic purposes – giving the patient a better idea of what the spectacles look like – as well as potentially helping the frame to keep the correct shape before purchase.

Conway explained: “In most injection-moulded frames and metal frames, there are no stability issues over a period of time – but acetate is quite soft. If you have it in a warm room for a long period of time, you can get some movement in the frame.”

He suggested that the simplest solution would be to not use demo lenses at all, or to only use them in acetate frames, but acknowledged: “that would require quite a lot of concerted effort across all kinds of frame suppliers.”

“Do I think that is likely to happen in the next five years? Probably not,” he said, suggesting that if demo lenses are here for the foreseeable, then it is worth exploring recycling solutions.

The company partnered with designer, Yair Neuman, last year, to create the ‘Heavy Light sculpture’ from discarded demo lenses and lens swarf, aiming to provoke conversation around lens waste.

Opting to go without

Waterhaul has taken the decision to not supply practices with demo lenses in frames.

Parker explained the reasoning: “As there is no clear end-of-life solution for these lenses (an estimated less than 10% of all lenses are recycled), we cannot justify using them in our frames made from 100% recycled fishing gear, which we can recycle and turn into more frames.”

This is explained to practices, and the brand has found: “We haven’t had a single practice not stock us due to a lack of demo lenses, and, due to the robustness of the material we use in our frames, we haven’t received any feedback from our stockists that our frames have become misshapen.”

Weighing options

Millmead is looking into options for demo lenses for Continental Eyewear, such as recycled demo lenses.

“We’re weighing up the overall costs and benefits and that’s going to take a bit of time,” Conway said: “We’re working towards recycling all the old lenses, all the waste, all the demo lenses.”

He added that, in the scheme of the broader UK economy, spectacle lenses are created to be used for several years, but that he expects there will be more sustainable solutions in the future.

Eventually, all frame collections from Continental Eyewear will use recycled or biodegradable demo lenses, Conway said.

Currently, the Cameo Sustain range uses recycled demo lenses, and Millmead is also working on products that are made from recycled lens waste.

Tackling lens waste more broadly, Millmead is slowly phasing out its remaining wet edging machines, in favour of MEI dry edging machines.

The introduction of these machines solved two key issues in edging, Conway said: microplastics in the water, and discarding plastic blocks.

The challenges

François van den Abeele, founder and CEO at Sea2See, which produces frames from recycled marine plastics, told OT that one part of the challenge he sees is that many practices want demo lenses.

The other side to the issue is the collection of demo lenses once discarded in practice, he suggested.

Many lenses are made from acrylic, which can be recycled, he shared, but noted: “The problem with recycling is you need to have the same polymer together to be able to recycle it. If you mix polymers, it’s like water and oil, it doesn’t mix properly.”

There would also be a cost element to collecting demo lenses – and the question of who would foot the bill.

He had concerns around biodegradable lens solutions, as these aren’t reintegrated into nature and would still take a long time to break down.

In collaboration with fishermen in communities in Spain, France, Ghana and Senegal, the carbon negative brand collects marine plastic waste from coastal communities, which is recycled and upcycled into UPSEA PLAST, a material used to make Sea2See’s frames and watches.

“I have so much material,” van den Abeele told OT, and while – in theory – this could be used to provide recycled demo lenses, the key issue is transparency.

“I’m working with a lab now to see how we could make it more transparent, but nothing is guaranteed,” he shared.

Next steps

Considering the approaches that could support an improvement in lens waste, Waterhaul’s Parker suggested that moving away from the use of demo lenses would be “a huge step forward” for the eyewear industry.

“End-consumers would quickly adapt to seeing no demo lenses in all the frames in their local practice,” he added.

This may not be possible for some styles, such as half-rimmed or rimless frames, he acknowledged, but suggested: “in these cases, extended producer responsibility legislation needs to be brought in, similar to that recently campaigned for and implemented for plastic packaging.”

“This will shift the burden of end-of-life onto the large producers and to incentivise circular solutions to be innovated to prevent the demo lenses ending up in landfill or incineration, or virgin materials being used to create them in the first place,” Parker continued.

Conway suggested the focus on this issue will continue to grow, telling OT: “I think there is going to be a lot of discussion in the next few years about this topic.”

The more people talking about lens waste and demo lenses, the more it will become normalised and a solution will be expected and consumers will vote with their wallets.

“There is a certain consumer pull, it’s maybe not quite there in optics yet, but it’s definitely going that way,” he said.

In practice

Practices can play a role in shifting the focus, eyewear brands suggested.

Parker suggested: “Practices could start tackling this issue from the ground up, by implementing a switch away from demo lenses and specifying to suppliers that they do not want them.”

“Do your best to minimise the waste that your practice produces and, regarding sustainability, try to make more conscious decisions on the brands and suppliers that you work with,” he added.

Conway also felt that “asking questions and starting the conversation is the beginning.”

As consumers become increasingly engaged in the topic, it will become an “inevitability” that they will ask questions, he said.

To practices, he encouraged: “Ask questions, talk to your suppliers, and talk to your patients: what do they think?”