Donating Used EyeGlasses: Is this really a clear solution?

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Placing used eyeglasses in a donation box makes people feel good. They are donated in hopes of improving the lives of others but seldom do we consider the implications this gesture has on the recipients.

Eyeglasses are essential for many.  If you “can’t see, you can’t work.  If you can’t see, you can’t learn” (http://visionspring.org)

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Photo: Donated glasses for eyecare mission in Mexico 2009, Icare International

There are 703 million people who could have restored vision with glasses alone. Donating used eyeglasses; however, is not the solution and these are my concerns:

  • Only 7% of donated glasses are actually usable (many are discarded because of scratches, broken frames, progressive lenses, high astigmatism etc.)
  • The cost per pair of donated glasses is $20.49 US (this cost arises from: collecting, cleaning, organizing, labeling, storing and distributing glasses)
  • Glasses are customized to individuals; many people require different prescription between their two eyes and it is often very difficult to match these up appropriately with a new wearer
  • Appearance is important in any culture.  Donated eyeglasses are often organized by prescription, not be frame style or size.  If the appearance of glasses is not culturally appropriate for an individual, the likelihood of them using them is quite low (e.g. large hot pink glasses for a 15 year old male).
  • Free eyeglasses can diminish their perceived value to recipients
  • Free eyeglasses distribution halts entrepreneurial opportunities for the local eye care industry

Enjoy your glasses and when you update them, keep the old ones as back-ups. When you are ready to be rid of them, dispose of them and consider making a donation towards organizations working with local communities that build up their own eye care capacity.  We need to improve access to eyeglasses, but sending used glasses is not the answer.

For further information:

http://journals.lww.com/optvissci/Fulltext/2012/03000/Real_Cost_of_Recycled_Spectacles.9.aspx

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-03/recycling-eyeglasses-is-a-feel-good-waste-of-money.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/health/research/donating-used-eyeglasses-is-a-poor-use-of-resources.html?_r=1&

Organizations working with local communities to enhance eye care through education and entrepreneurial opportunities:
http://visionspring.org
http://www.canadianvisioncare.com

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4 Responses to “Donating Used EyeGlasses: Is this really a clear solution?”

  1. nlullman Says:

    Thanks for the post! This is an interesting perspective. I would think that donating a pair of glasses would be better than not donating one if those were the only two options, but when you point out the economic burden of about $20 per pair, I realize that we may be able to manufacture new glasses for close to that cost. Are there any programs for recycling glasses – i.e. figuring out the prescription and replacing the frames or other broken/undesirable parts with better ones? I imagine this would cost a substantial amount of money and/or resources as well, but maybe not more than having to start form scratch?
    Additionally, my sister works for a company called Warby Parker that sells eyewear here in the U.S. but for every pair sold they, “donate a pair to someone in need.” They do this by providing glasses and training to low-income entrepreneurs in developing countries to start their own business selling glasses: http://www.warbyparker.com/do-good#buy-a-pair-give-a-pair
    This is a unique model that I think addresses some of your concerns with donating glasses as it fosters sustainability and gives people in underserved areas the ability to pick out and purchase affordable eyewear that works for them, right in their own communities.

  2. annebert623 Says:

    Nice debunking of a common feel-good practice – so obvious when the flaws are spelled out.

    I was struck by the $20+ cost of delivering these second-hand goods. If all the money spent on the recycling process went instead to producing new glasses, it would be money better spent.

    Meanwhile, I’ll stop recycling old glasses and donate directly to an appropriate charity the $20 that would have been spent recylcing each pair.

  3. hkim180 Says:

    I share this author’s dismay at people’s misdirected efforts at improving the lives of others. The notion of “helping others” has become hugely popular in recent years, and the challenges associated with it, hugely underestimated. While good intentions are necessary, they are often not sufficient to achieve the intended outcome i.e. to improve the lives of others, as in this case. Indeed, what is needed aside from good intentions is a critical analysis of the problem, and such analysis will examine the determinants of eye care that operate at different levels – at the level of individuals (within and between individuals), at the level of community, and of the society at large. Choosing a course of action (or an appropriate organization) to channel our good intentions requires appreciation of what causes the problem in the first place. I agree with the author’s excellent suggestion of, in this particular case, donating towards organizations working with local communities that build up their own eye care capacity. In other words, some degree of humility (i.e. recognition that maybe I don’t have all the information to know how to be most helpful), and some research to identify who does, if not I, are necessary to channel that wonderful energy of solidarity into an outcome that actually improves the lives of others in a sustainable manner.

  4. xuanzhang92 Says:

    Thanks for the posting and thank you for the above comments. I agree this is a new respective, and I have not paid attention before as a glasses wearer since a young girl. I agree with the author’s reasons against this policy, and I have one additional concern about the infectious diseases might transmitted by the glasses, like HBV. I also argue that the glasses prescribed for each individual are kind of patents of the ophthalmologists. And it is OK to recycle the glasses for material use, but not the glasses themselves.

    One more suggestion, the links could be made into hyperlinks, which may seem more comfortable for a posting.

    Nice job!

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