Reducing the impact of climate change has found what, some might say, is an unusual group of advocates. SCI Cambridge Springs, located south of Erie, Penn., is a minimum-security Department of Corrections facility for women that is also home to a 1,800 square-foot optical lab that adopted a lens recycling program in 2020, designed to reduce the amount of waste generated by lens manufacturing.

Opened in 1999, the lab began as a seven-month program for approximately a dozen inmates. It has since grown to incorporate a stronger education component under the leadership of Tony Renz, optical lab factory supervisor, who said that inmates are provided with optical courses to facilitate manufacturing eyewear.

“The first classes were held in the basement of a housing unit that was only a few hundred square feet in size,” Renz said. “Now, the basic optical course runs four to six months and we employ approximately 26 to 30 inmates. The optical space includes the lab, an office area and a storage facility. Our production area consists of a full-size surface work area, a finishing side, a tinting area, an inmate office and a shipping department,” he said.

According to Renz, orders are brought into the lab where inmates grind the prescription into the lenses including single vision, bifocals, trifocals, and no-line progressives, utilizing traditional materials like plastic, polycarbonate and high index. 

“The next step is the finishing side, where we edge the lenses down to the frame. Tinting is next if requested, and then to final inspection. The final inspection is where we verify the prescription and confirm that the glasses meet all the government standards. Lastly, they are shipped out,” Renz said.

Four years ago, the program took on a new direction to have a more positive impact on the environment. Following some research into other similar programs, the optical lab incorporated a recycling program at the facility.

“As the Department of Corrections (DOC) Correctional Industries lab supervisor, I learned of Costa, a Daytona Beach-based sunglasses manufacturer, that launched the ‘Kick Plastic Lens Recycling Program.’ Costa recognized that the disposal of optical lenses created a large amount of plastic waste being disposed of every year, which takes more than 400 years to decompose,” he said.

Although just a small portion of the waste is generated at the facility, Renz said his optical lab team wanted to do their part in helping with the recycling efforts and have since started collecting lenses from inmates when they receive new prescriptions, along with working with the local Lions Club to obtain lenses.

“After the optical lab receives donated glasses, we clean them and make any repairs that are needed. Once refurbished, we turn them over to the Lions Club to be donated to people who are in need,” he said, adding lenses are sourced through Piedmont Plastics in Ohio and the local Lions Club chapter in Meadville, Penn. “We also donate our damaged lenses to Piedmont Plastics in Columbus, Ohio, which melts down the old lenses to make products like scuba masks and other products made out of plastics.”

Since the program began four years ago, the lab has sent more than 5,671 pounds of lenses to Piedmont Plastics and has processed over 1,620 pairs of glasses. Though the program is set up like any other lab manufacturing facility in the United States, with inmates taking turns processing the lenses and the glasses for donation, the impact has been immeasurable.

“I’ve been told that they feel it’s a way of helping people who are in need, like service hours one would perform in the community. The inmates who are involved in this program seem to take pride in what they do and take it to heart. Many of them, before being incarcerated, were in the same shoes as the people who they are helping today. It’s not just a job to them, it has become who they are,” Renz said. 

The corrections staff working with the inmates in the optical program assist inmates in gaining employment before and after they have been released from the facility. Each inmate has an opportunity to work in the lab, manufacturing glasses and dispensing glasses to fellow inmates. 

In addition to learning how to repair the glasses, inmates also learn how to maintain the optical equipment, Renz said, noting that the goal is to teach inmates all aspects of manufacturing a pair of glasses and the business side of the operation as well. All the inmates have an opportunity to study and take the American Board of Opticianry (ABO) exam, to become a certified optician. 

“In addition to what they’ve accomplished working in the facility, many reentrants have gone on and received their National Contact Lens Examiners (NCLE) certifications as well. Passing these exams makes a big difference when applying for employment. In several cases, inmates have been fortunate enough to accept employment prior to their release from our facility,” he said.

Renz believes the program can continue to grow and build on its success, not just in education and rehabilitation of inmates, but also to promote the importance of recycling materials to inmates and the community at large.