This Is Plastics: Edge of Equity Installment 2: Plastic’s role in advancing vision equity


Edge of Equity Installment 2: Plastic’s role in advancing vision equity

Plastics improve corrective lens quality, address global disparities in eyewear access, and are repurposed to clean up the ocean.


In Part two of the Edge of Equity Series, learn how plastics are improving corrective lens quality, helping address global disparities in eyewear access, and being repurposed to clean up the ocean.

It’s no secret that the eyeglasses many people wear—frames, lenses, or both—are made from plastic. Despite movies often depicting the quintessential playground altercation or sports accident scene resulting in a cracked lens, plastic avoids this fate entirely for most glasses wearers. The plastic eyeglass lens made its debut in the mid-1900s and has since become the primary material for eyeglass lenses and frames. Plastic lenses are lightweight, low-cost, allow for high optical clarity and are more durable than traditional glass lenses. Using plastic for eyeglasses has enabled rapid prototyping and extensively broadened access to life-improving technology to communities that have historically viewed eye health as a privilege.

However, access to quality, properly-fitted corrective eyewear is not as ubiquitous as it may seem. From companies favoring Eurocentric features for  frame designs to more than 1 billion people around the globe lacking necessary vision correction, the optical industry has room to grow in advancing vision equity. To that end, plastic is helping key companies play a critical role in transforming the vision equity landscape, not to mention cleaning up the world’s oceans, too.

Bringing the world into focus with plastic

Vision correction is a facet of everyday life—even if you’re blessed with 20/20 vision, chances are you know someone who isn’t. In fact, research from the Vision Impact Institute indicates about 3 out of every 4 people in the United States have some form of vision correction, with the vast majority (71%) relying on glasses to provide a crisp, clear view of their world.

Though plastic entered the lens market in the early 1960s, it wasn’t until 1983, with the advent of polycarbonate lenses, that plastic’s revolutionary optical potential really took off. Lighter, thinner, and more durable than traditional glass lenses, plastic would become the industry’s go-to for corrective lenses. Modern advancements in lens technology—like protective coatings, hi-index capabilities, and blue light filtering—extend polycarbonate lenses’ benefit even further.

Beyond lenses, a form of plastic known as cellulose acetate, or just acetate for shorthand, emerged as a preferred frame material in the late 1940s. As a low-cost, moldable, easily dyed material, acetate is the backbone of many of today’s popular eyewear brands, like Warby Parker. Let’s face it; you don’t have to squint to get this picture: glasses as we know them today wouldn’t exist without plastic.

Using plastic to advance vision equity around the globe

Despite the many advancements in glasses technology in recent decades, many people lack access to quality corrective eyewear. Historically, many glasses manufacturers designed frames with Eurocentric facial features in mind, overlooking vision correction needs for people of color. Furthermore, according to the World Health Organization, over 1 billion people around the world live with unaddressed but correctable vision impairment, like short and far sightedness, glaucoma and cataracts.

Now, innovators are using plastic to advance vision equity—by both demographic and location. This year, two sisters launched their eyewear brand Kimeze, the first company to manufacture glasses specifically for Black faces. Their frames, many of which are made with Italian cellulose acetate, cater to facial features traditionally neglected by the eyewear industry, like “lower, wider nose profiles or narrower and lower nose profiles,” according to co-founder Christina Kimeze. Another start-up, Reframd, uses a smartphone-compatible 3D parametric algorithm to capture a person’s “face landmarks,” capturing unique inputs like their “head width, bridge height, pantoscopic tilt, temple length, and more,” according to founder Ackeem Ngwenya. Reframd then uses this information to tailor-fit glasses made from 3D-printed nylon—a strong engineering plastic—to users’ faces. These companies demonstrate the power of leveraging plastic’s versatile properties to address disparities in corrective eyewear.

Nevertheless, a pair of properly-fitting glasses does no good to someone who can’t access corrective eyewear in the first place. Thankfully, companies are using plastic to reduce the cost of eyewear and bring necessary vision correction to those without. Since its founding in 2010, Warby Parker has deployed its Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program, in which every pair of glasses purchased leads to a pair being distributed to someone in need. Thus far, the program has distributed over 8 million pairs of glasses worldwide, largely relying on acetate frames and exclusively utilizing polycarbonate lenses, in addition to administering basic eye exams and vision care. Without the affordability and high performance of plastic, this mission likely wouldn’t be possible.  

Creating clearer vision and cleaner oceans with plastic

In addition to helping address global disparities in access to corrective eyewear, the optical industry is also realizing the potential in producing more sustainable corrective lenses and sunglasses from recycled plastic. Plastic is already a ubiquitous material in the optical industry, but larger industry also understands the importance of creating circular economies so plastic waste– sometimes broken, discarded eyeglasses–remain in the economy and not the environment.

The Ocean Cleanup (TOC), an organization aiming to remove 90% of floating ocean plastic by 2040, recently launched its first product made with oceanic plastic waste–The Ocean Cleanup Sunglasses. TOC estimates that the proceeds from just one pair of glasses will allow it to clean an area equivalent to 24 football fields

Plastic, when compared to other materials, is more sustainable because it is easily recycled and less harmful to the environment. Equally important, the use of plastic allows for the addressing of both social and environmental disparities–in line with the current Biden Administration’s all-agency approach to environmental justice. By offering varied designs and decreased prices, plastic allows eyewear manufacturers to market their products to a wider and more diverse audience. Similarly, because of plastics reusability, companies are reinforcing their commitment to creating more robust circular economies for post-consumer waste.

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