With more than four million pairs of eyeglasses thrown away each year, efforts to reduce the environmental impact and create more cost-efficiencies have prompted optical industry leaders and innovators to reevaluate how products are made and delivered to consumers.

The materials that go into creating a pair of glasses can have a significant impact on the environment, and this affects the ability of manufacturers to maintain a high level of production sustainability. Frame materials such as acetate are molded and trimmed to create a wearable pair of frames, resulting in a staggering amount of waste.

According to Common Objective in a feature titled, The Market Opportunity for Ethical Eyewear, nearly 75 percent of acetate goes to waste during the manufacturing process. Meanwhile, during lens production, lens pucks are ground down into a thin and usable pair of lenses, generating thousands of tons of residual waste, known as swarf, on a yearly basis.

To combat the more than 250 metric tons of waste created through the disposal of eyeglasses in landfills, frame and lens manufacturers and suppliers have developed sustainable protocols that help reduce the carbon footprint of the optical industry.

Eyewear supplier Eastman has put their resources into research and product development to help create sustainable eyewear solutions. The company offers specialty plastics solutions for both frames and lenses, with products that utilize molecular recycling technologies composed of certified, recycled and bio-based content.

Rachel Oakley

“According to Eastman’s U.S. and European Sunglasses Study, consumers are hungry for sustainable eyewear solutions offering sustainable materials that are called out in product information as well as education to help them find these options,” said Rachel Oakley, eyewear segment market manager at Eastman. “While this is driven by luxury consumers, customers across all eyewear price points are seeking sustainable materials like Eastman Acetate Renew and Tritan Renew.”

Oakley added that Eastman’s sustainability initiatives have centered around working with renowned eyewear brands and value-priced retailers to ensure that sustainable materials are widely available to consumers.

“This includes our fashion sunglasses crafted from Tritan Renew, a product derived from our newly established Kingsport molecular recycling facility. Since its launch earlier this year, our Kingsport facility is on track to recycle more than 100,000 tons of plastic waste every year into high-quality plastics suitable for frames, sun lenses and other applications. This enables us to offer industry-leading plastic with a remarkable 50 percent recycled content, providing a scalable solution for high-quality sustainable eyewear,” she said.

At the recent Eyes on Sustainability Conference in November 2023, Oakley said she engaged with numerous eyecare providers to discuss sustainability practices. She said that ECPs have expressed their awareness of the various methods available to reduce their environmental impact, such as energy-efficient lighting and low-emission vehicles.

“They particularly appreciated sustainable materials as a simple way to enhance circularity within the industry. With Eastman’s Renew products, ECPs were pleased that they didn’t have to compromise on quality or performance,” she said. “However, we have seen a bit of scepticism about the sustainability claims since the Renew products look and feel identical to their non-sustainable counterparts.”

Technology designed to give wearers the same look and feel as traditional eyeglasses continues to evolve thanks to new research and innovative design ideas. To help build a culture of innovation that will bring these new products to market, companies are building sustainable practices into their day-to-day operations, attracting like-minded employees who view this as a workplace benefit.

Evidence shows a culture of sustainability within a company is one of the key decision factors for potential employees. A 2022 IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) study. found 67 percent of the respondents reported that they were more willing to apply for jobs within companies that demonstrated sustainable practices, and 68 percent were more willing to accept positions from such companies.

Jared Brandman

National Vision’s sustainability efforts are grounded in the company’s mission to provide access to low-cost, quality eyecare and eyewear. Jared Brandman, general counsel and secretary, who leads National Vision’s Environmental, Social and Governance strategy, said the company structures and prioritizes sustainability endeavors through its SEE+G framework, which encompasses Social, Employees, Environment and Governance aspects.

“This framework helps ensure we focus on the areas where we have the greatest opportunity to create positive impacts on the world while we grow a resilient business. Sustainable merchandising is one focus within this framework,” said Brandman. “Our customers are interested in purchasing products that are environmentally and socially responsible, so we’re continuing to seek out opportunities to provide products that meet our standards of quality and affordability while also making a positive contribution to our world.”

Brandman said National Vision looks beyond merchandise efforts when developing a sustainable strategy and focus. He noted consumers are savvy and recognize that a commitment to sustainability is more than just carrying products with green credentials, adding they care about a company being purpose-driven.

“As we continue to mature our sustainability framework, we’re focusing on more deeply integrating sustainable approaches throughout National Vision’s operations and value chain. This includes continuing to explore eco-friendly merchandise lines, like our Green Love frame line, and 100 percent net plastic neutral contact lenses through our partnership with CooperVision, as well as products that make positive societal impacts—including the See Inside frame capsule highlighting mental health awareness and our collaboration with women- and Black-owned eyewear company, Vontélle Eyewear, in celebration of Black History Month,” Brandman said.

Sustainable practices are also embedded into National Vision labs and distribution centers. The result, he said, is increased efficiency and reduction in waste in the company operations, allowing National Vision to create a more value-conscious and streamlined experience for customers.

“Throughout our sustainability efforts, environmental stewardship is a key pillar. It goes hand-in-hand with our ability to meet our other core pillars of contributing to societal good, impacting the well-being of associates and doctors, and earning stakeholder trust by meeting high standards in our governance,” he said.

Consumers understand the importance of sustainability when it comes to making purchasing choices. According to a report from The Roundup, customers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly brands. This means companies need to make smarter manufacturing and packaging choices. The Roundup report found that 84 percent of customers say that poor environmental practices alienate them from brands or companies.

Audley Brown

ABB Optical Group is developing sustainable practices and protocols in-house to ensure they are manufacturing and selling a product that hits these consumer benchmarks. The organization considers environmental, health and safety in all operations. Audley Brown, senior facilities manager, said ABB Optical Group recognizes the value of sustainability and is driven at the operations level with efforts to both recycle and minimize waste such as segregation and recycling cardboard, light bulbs, wooden pallets, ink cartridges and batteries at all locations.

Brown said low-flow equipment technology is also used to reduce both water consumption and discharge. He said that waste minimization success has included recent changes in chemical usage, resulting in a lower quantity of chemical waste.

“Over the past year, the ABB Labs teams have been focused on reducing water and energy consumption, minimizing waste production, and increasing recycling across its entire laboratory network. Teams across the laboratories looked at everything that contributed to water consumption and then installed advanced water-cooling systems and filtration in closed-loop water systems,” he said.

Creating a sustainable production environment has encompassed other areas of the building, including the improvement of heating and air conditioning consumption through mechanisms such as tinting windows, adding blinds, and installing more energy-efficient air conditioning systems. Additionally, all overhead lighting in the building and at each workstation was updated from fluorescent and halogen to LED.

All non-office type locations within the facilities, such as bathrooms and conference rooms, have automated on/off lighting switches. Brown said the company reviewed opportunities to innovate packaging to reduce waste. This included reviewing bubble wrap consumption.

“Instead of buying pre-made giant rolls of bubble wrap, we now make our bubble wrap using 50 percent recycled material, which helps us use 28 percent less of it. We have also implemented healthier food choices in our vending machines. Options include fresh, lower-sodium, microwavable and affordable selections,” he said. To ensure this is done accurately and effectively, each facility monitors what’s popular and then will add or expand for a better variety for company employees.

“In our laboratories, employees are also offered an ABB spill proof bottle to help reduce paper cup usage and water waste. These are ongoing initiatives across all ABB laboratories and facilities. Our teams take pride in our sustainability efforts, and we are always looking for the next improvements to continually make greener decisions,” Brown said.

One of the greatest environmental issues of lens manufacturing is the disposal of swarf. As noted earlier, swarf is the residual waste from lens pucks as they are ground into shape. For years, this waste simply ended up in landfills, but today, companies are taking steps to reduce the impact of swarf on the environment through the development of recycling programs.

Cherry Optical redirects thousands of tons of waste from landfills each year.

In 2020, Cherry Optical Lab installed a Filtertech swarf management machine that would allow the company to recycle excess material. By the following year, Cherry Optical Lab had partnered with DEVCO to begin by-product collection.

Once the program was up and running, in just two weeks, the company filled 40 Gaylord boxes measuring 48 inches by 40 inches by 36 inches of compact swarf.

“Our partnership with Filtertech and NXTsolve allows us to divert massive volumes of waste from the landfill. While this process will not save the planet, it certainly feels like the right thing to do,” said Adam Cherry, president of Cherry Optical Lab.

Today, the company fills three to four Gaylords a week and redirects thousands of tons of waste from landfills a year. “Finding a purpose for the swarf produced in the processing of optical lenses has been something optical laboratories have looked at for decades,” he said.

Cherry Optical Lab has also added recycling protocols to help address the thousands of empty lens boxes that are created during the production process. Each lens comes in a small box, which in the past would be discarded after the lens was put on the production line.

The lab now utilizes a compactor for lens boxes, rechargeable batteries, reusable utensils, and dinnerware, and participates in recycling programs for their coffee pouches and has created designated stations with distinct bin types to ensure products are directed to the proper recycling channel.

Making customers part of the sustainability journey has been a challenge for some companies. For Plastic Plus, Canada’s largest independent optical lab, customers were ready to get on board with new sustainable practices.

In 2022, Plastic Plus launched the Green Send Back Program designed to recycle materials used for packing and shipping. The program invites customers to return packing materials such as pillow packs, bubble wrap, cardboard wrap, and lens sleeves for reuse or proper recycling. Since implementing the program, the lab has been able to divert 25 percent of packing materials from the landfill.

Jason Faibish

“In the past, sustainability in the optical lab space was a challenge. We have worked with our suppliers and customers to help develop successful ways to reduce our environmental impact,” said Plastic Plus vice president Jason Faibish. “Our customers appreciate our efforts and have been quick to come onboard, reducing the carbon footprint of the optical industry.”

One of the first steps to successfully achieving sustainability is understanding the consumer market. Zeiss has been collecting information from consumers, and their findings offer strong insight into buying trends and expectations. Matt Woelbern, head of marketing, US Channels at Zeiss Vision Care U.S., noted that the company has discovered through research that sustainability isn’t the only factor that is influencing consumer buying patterns, however, it can be a deciding factor.

“Consumers aren’t making demands or major decisions based on sustainability, but they are expecting it from their brands and might use it as a tiebreaker. At Zeiss, we are pursuing sustainability because it is the right thing to do, and much of the work isn’t consumer-facing and may be behind the scenes,” he said.

The company has made sustainability a part of the overall corporate strategy. Between 2018 and 2019, Zeiss reduced C02 emissions by 79 percent at Zeiss Group globally. The company also saw a 26 percent reduction in energy consumption and a 34 percent reduction in water consumption. Targets for 2025 include a continued 10 percent reduction in waste reduction and a 15 percent reduction in water consumption.

Zeiss has partnered with their ECPs to implement sustainability strategies. Woelbern said even though their customers aren’t choosing Zeiss products based on sustainability initiatives, the company still keeps technology and quality top-of-mind.

Matt Wolbern

“Customers are expecting it from us and all of their suppliers. They understand that as a foundation-owned company, Zeiss has additional resources to pursue sustainability since we don’t distribute profits to any shareholders,” he said.

Building workplace and product sustainability has been a core objective at VSP Vision. Through the establishment of the Global Innovation Center (GIC), the company has been able to reimagine the way eyecare and eyewear are delivered to the world. The GIC is focused on three key areas: patient experience, health access equity and sustainability. Additionally, it serves to incorporate sustainability into how VSP does business by exploring new technologies and making strategic connections within the innovation ecosystem.

“There is a strong commitment from teams across the VSP Vision enterprise to pursue sustainable business practices, and we’re working together to ensure there is integration wherever possible to meet the growing demand in this important space,” said Thomas Burkhardt, president of Marchon Eyewear, a VSP Vision company.

The company has made strides toward sustainability through its innovative packaging and product designs.

Thomas Burkhardt

“We recently made the switch to 100 percent Global Recycled Standard (GRS)-certified post-consumer polyethylene shipping poly bags for frames and GRS-certified 100 percent post-consumer recycled demo lenses in all Marchon and Altair produced frames. Eyeconic, VSP Vision’s online eyewear store, ships frames in boxes made from 100 percent recyclable materials,” Burkhardt said.

Internally, VSP Vision has also instituted numerous protocols and programs to help reduce their environmental impact. The VSP Vision headquarters campus provides bike lockers and EV charging stations for employees, uses LED lighting, and purchases energy from renewable sources.

Additionally, the company has implemented digital billing, saving more than one million sheets of paper per year. Recycling programs for paper, cardboard, batteries, lightbulbs, air filters, and e-waste have also contributed to more sustainable operations while the VSP Vision employee Green Guardian Team hosts regular e-waste events.

Employee participation in green initiatives is one of the best ways to improve workplace satisfaction. A 2023 report  from Seven Clean Seas found engaging and communicating with employees regarding sustainability ambitions results in higher productivity, better employee retention and 21 percent more profitability for the company.