Glasses have been around for a long time. Italian monks in the 13th century are widely credited with inventing the first modern version of eyeglasses: two tiny magnifying glasses, which they balanced on their noses to help them read the Bible and other important documents. Over time, the concept evolved to include glasses that helped correct nearsightedness and farsightedness; glasses that helped people read; and sunglasses, which were invented by Sam Foster in 1929.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology estimates that 150 million Americans wear some type of corrective lenses. About 36 million of them wear contacts, which leaves well over 100 million people who rely on glasses. And while the interval at which people get new glasses varies widely – some people want fashionable new frames every year, while some may stick with their frames for 10 years or more – suffice it to say that plenty of glasses end up in the waste stream every year.
Glasses are not a highly recyclable accessory, but they are quite easy to reuse. There are lots of nonprofits that take glasses and give them to people who cannot afford them. Look into one of these options when you are ready to recycle your glasses, or see if there is something you can do to extend the life of your existing ones.
What are glasses made of?
Glasses have two main components: the frame and the lenses. Eyeglass frames are made from a very wide variety of materials. Plastic frames may by nylon, acetate or a very lightweight material called zyl. Metal frames can be stainless steel, titanium, aluminum or gold. Companies also make frames from natural materials like bone, wood and buffalo horn.
Contrary to their name, the lenses of most glasses are actually made of plastic. Plastic lenses weigh less, do not break as easily and are typically coated with a material to protect your eyes from damaging ultraviolet rays. Many of the more advanced plastics are less likely to get scratched.
Glasses also have various little parts like nose pads, screws, ear covers and decorative elements. They are mostly made of metal or plastic.
Add all of those materials together and you can see why it can be challenging to recycle glasses. Metals like steel and aluminum are easy to recycle, but finding a titanium recycler at your local recycling center is unlikely. Miscellaneous plastics like those used in the lenses and nose pads are nearly impossible to recycle. That is why many people choose to donate their glasses to charity rather than worrying about all those little parts.
Reuse your glasses rather than buying new ones
Unless your glasses get broken or damaged, there is no reason to replace them every year. Reusing your frames will cut down on the number of eyeglasses you have to recycle (not to mention the number you have to buy). Your ophthalmologist can replace the lenses in your frames when you need a new prescription.
If your glasses get broken, there are lots of websites that will coach you through the process of replacing screws, hinges or nose pads. You may need to invest in some tools like tiny screwdrivers, but they will serve you well for repairing glasses as well as potentially doing other tasks around the house (like fixing electronics).
Donate glasses to charity
For every American who wears glasses, there is another person out there who needs them but cannot afford them. That is why many charities, including the Lion’s Club, OneSight and New Eyes, collect used glasses and give them away to people in the United States and abroad. Some of them also offer eye exams so they can get the right pair of glasses to the right person.
To donate your old glasses to charity, watch for a drop box at your ophthalmologist’s office, your favorite glasses retailer or the local office of the charity (the Lion’s Club has locations all over the country). In most cases you can also mail your glasses to the organization at the address listed on their website. Check with them to see if they are interested in frames that are broken or damaged. Since these organizations receive so many pairs of glasses, they may have places they can sell the valuable metals like titanium or gold. The proceeds from those sales can help fund their charitable work.
Make sure you check to see what kinds of glasses each charity will take – or will not take. Unite for Sight only accepts new glasses. The Lion’s Club is particularly interested in glasses for children.
Creative uses for old glasses
There are some fun, creative ways to reuse old glasses as well. Pinterest has great ideas for using both eyeglass frames and lenses (especially colored lenses from old sunglasses) in jewelry and other projects. If you take the lenses out of your old glasses, they can be used for children’s dress-up games or perched on the carrot nose of a nearsighted snowman.