“Going clean and green is absolutely the right thing to do”

The SEE Summit on the Environment brought manufacturers and eye care professionals together to share examples and tips for how the profession can work in more sustainable ways

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The road to developing a sustainable practise is made up of small steps – that was a key takeaway from the SEE Summit on the Environment, held on 4 October.

Bringing together manufacturers, researchers, and practices, the webinar aimed to increase awareness of how the profession can work in more sustainable ways. Over 250 people joined the virtual event live.

The event was supported by optical organisations including the Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO), the AOP, the British Contact Lens Association, the College of Optometrists, the General Optical Council, and the Optical Suppliers Association (OSA).

As part of the event, ABDO’s Working Group on the Environment launched a Sustainability Self-Assessment Tool.

Developed in collaboration with organisations across the profession, the tool is designed to enable employees, locums, business owners and manufacturers to each assess their practises and find steps to become more sustainable.

The session began with a presentation by keynote speaker, Nick Bridge, the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change, who explained the UK’s global diplomatic climate change work, and the plans for the COP26 event, taking place 31 October – 12 November.

Describing the “very sobering projections” of the scale of climate change, Bridge highlighted the potential dangers posed “without a serious course correction,” suggesting that society is at a “tipping point.”

At what is expected to be the biggest gathering of world leaders ever in the UK, representatives at COP26 will consider four objectives – including committing to “bending the curve of emissions” and “getting serious” about how society adapts and becomes more resilient to the effects of climate change.

The third objective will involve seeking to raise finance to support the most vulnerable countries in the world – who contribute minimally to the climate change problem, but often suffer many of the largest effects. The final challenge will be determining how to do this “in a way that is fair, clear, accountable and verifiable and can be monitored,” Bridge said.

“If you add up the health, economic and environmental benefits, what we can say now in our businesses and communities is that going clean and green is absolutely the right thing to do on all levels,” Bridge said.

He suggested that much of the innovation will come from activities in the world of business, adding “those who are at the leading edge of it will thrive and have a long-term future,” and highlighted the UN’s Race to Zero campaign as a way that businesses have been committing to reducing emissions.

We’re used to having discussions with our patients about choosing a lens that is right for their lifestyle, and perhaps now that might include questions our patients have about sustainability

Sarah Smith, research optometrist at Eurolens Research, University of Manchester

Sarah Smith, research optometrist at Eurolens Research, from the University of Manchester, presented on the sustainable supply of contact lenses, drawing on research into the amount of waste that different modalities of contact lens wear generates.

Smith shared data suggesting a daily disposable contact lens wearer, assuming they wear 30 pairs per calendar month, generates over one kilogramme of waste per year, compared to a monthly reusable lens wearer using the lenses in conjunction with a multi-purpose solution, who creates over 800g.

“I think for some of our contact lens wearers, the fact that those numbers are very similar might surprise them,” Smith shared, noting that though waste generated through daily disposable contact lens wear was higher, it was just 27% higher in this case.

Having identified the levels of waste generated, the researchers had explored options for disposing of this, finding that, in Greater Manchester where the clinic is based, though daily disposable lens wearers have more waste per annum, they have the option to recycle 100% of their contact lens waste if they engage in the appropriate schemes. While monthly reusable lens wearers create less waste initially, there is some waste that can’t be recycled.

“We’re used to having discussions with our patients about choosing a lens that is right for their lifestyle, and perhaps now that might include questions our patients have about sustainability,” Smith said, suggesting that aftercare discussions could perhaps be extended to cover end of life disposal and recycling schemes.

Examining recycling options, Smith highlighted a purchasable Zero Waste Box which is designed to collect typically non-recycled items, including contact lens packaging and empty solution bottles.

Manufacturers also have schemes, though sites can sometimes be limited in order to space out recycling locations. Smith added, “There’s nothing to stop any practitioner having a box of their own and taking that to another site.”

Emphasising that responsible disposal “should always be promoted,” Smith concluded that overall, 2016 statistics suggested that a UK households generates more than 400 kilogrammes of waste per person per year, “of that, daily disposable contact lenses account for just 0.26%.”

You have to think of sustainability as an ongoing process. This is not something that has an endpoint

James Conway, CEO of Millmead Optical Group and OSA board member

James Conway, CEO of Millmead Optical Group and member of the OSA board, shared how the business has been working to reduce its environmental impact, explaining that when the company first began to look at sustainable projects, “I was of the belief, mistakenly, that this was something you could just do, and then you are sustainable. As I learned quite rapidly, you have to think of sustainability as an ongoing process. This is not something that has an endpoint.”

Highlighting that engaging staff in a collaborative process was key, Conway shared the measures the business has introduced, from providing all staff with reusable water bottles, to using only recycled or ethically sourced FSC-certified paper, and consolidating frame and case deliveries.

 The company has recently begun manufacturing cases in Liverpool using materials created from recycled PET (rPET), which utilises recycled plastic bottles. At 100% Optical in 2022, Continental Eyewear, part of Millmead Optical, will also be launching a range of frames made from rPET and with recyclable plastic demo lenses.

Around three to four bottles are needed to make one frame, Conway shared, meaning approximately 15,600 bottles were used to make the new Cameo sustain collection.

Talking about plans for the future, the company is aiming for all of the demo lenses used in its frames to be made from recycled plastic, and for point of sale materials to not include any virgin plastic materials.

“The big one is lenses,” Conway shared, noting that edged and surface waste goes to landfill or is incinerated. “That is a huge global problem. It’s something we’ve been working on for about two years now and I’m hoping that towards the beginning of next year we will have a solution for lens recycling and reusing.”

Steps to sustainability: the manufacturer, the practice owner and the locum

The summit welcomed a panel of optical professionals to share their experiences of pursuing sustainability.

Jayne Abel, chair of the OSA’s sustainable committee and co-founder and CEO of Eyespace Eyewear, shared how she has developed an interest in sustainability: “As a manufacturer I feel there’s a real responsibility to do all the right things and ask our suppliers the right questions.”

The OSA sustainability committee is putting together a green charter to ensure suppliers in the industry are taking the right steps.

Asked about sustainability within repurposing frames, Abel acknowledged some of the challenges, with charities such as Vision Aid Overseas ceasing their recycling programme.

Abel continued: “The problem we have with recycling frames is you have plastic and metal components, so it is quite tricky to extract each material to recycle.” However, she added that companies are developing techniques to address this, such as RecycLine, which extracts metal from frames to be recycled and turns the plastic into pellets to be sold as an aggregate.

Practice owner and optometrist, Simon Berry, shared that his interest in sustainability stems from the recommendations he makes patients: “If I sell a frame or a product, then I am effectively endorsing that product. I don’t want to endorse something that has been made in an unethical manner.”

In 2017, the optometrist developed an Ethical Supply Questionnaire which he uses with his suppliers.

Berry described how, after implementing offsetting projects, his practice became carbon neutral 18 months ago, but he admitted to finding the process complicated.

Through the process, he found that stock does not count towards a practice’s carbon footprint, as it is considered to be the manufacturer’s carbon, a position he disagrees with. As a result, Berry began a project with Durham University in 2020 which hopes to develop an algorithm where practices can roughly work out what the carbon footprint attributed to a frame would be.

If I sell a frame or a product, then I am effectively endorsing that product. I don’t want to endorse something that has been made in an unethical manner

Simon Berry, practice owner and optometrist

Responding to an audience question about the influence a locum optometrist could have in practices, Ruth Shelton, a locum dispensing optician, chartered landscape architect and a senior advisor for Natural England, advised: “I think it is small changes, step by step, that all amounts to a big difference.

“Lead by example. Use your own initiative to be as sustainable as you can be yourself, talk to people about being carbon neutral, have those conversations with the people you are working with, ask the questions – do you know which energy supplier or recycled paper manufacturer the practice is using?”

She suggested that, as a locum, “you can cross-pollinate and give people the ideas that you have picked up from other practices.”

Shelton shared that she tries to make sure that the practices she works in have sustainable frames, and said, “It’s trying to work out in the situation that we’re in, with the patient that you are with, what is the best solution?”

Abel also suggested: “It would be a great idea for practices to have a sustainability champion on site and that way locums could then carry forward their ideas.”

I think it is small changes, step by step, that all amounts to a big difference

Ruth Shelton, a locum dispensing optician, chartered landscape architect and a senior advisor for Natural England

Discussing eco-friendly eyewear, Abel explained that a lot of new materials have become available in the last two years. “It’s really important to get to grips with what’s renewable, what’s recyclable and what is biodegradable,” she said. “You’ve also got brand names out there like Econyl, made from fishing nets and landfill plastics. Any of those have a positive social impact and on the planet.”

“Don’t make it a one brand token gesture, do it right across the practice – there are enough out there,” she suggested.

The panel also tackled a question of whether two-for-one offers on spectacles should be stopped as part of sustainability measures.

The panellists agreed that, in theory – yes, with Abel suggesting: “if they don’t need two, one will do the job,” though highlighting, “but of course we are talking ourselves out of business.”

Pointing to reglazing options, Abel suggested that where practices do have reglazers, “maybe make a bigger deal about it being a good, sustainable choice. It’s not a bad thing to be reglazing.”

Berry agreed: “It is bad for business, and it’s against our business model,” but added: “I think we’re going to have to be honest, if we’re going to be sustainable, then maybe our business model needs to change.”