Sustainability, Plastic, and the Future of Sunglasses

Sunglasses are one of the world’s most popular accessories. Being both stylish and useful in protecting from harmful UV rays, it is not surprising to hear that the revenue of the United States sunglasses market was over $4 billion in 2020. They are so widely distributed throughout the U.S. (and worldwide) that it is easy and most cost-effective for them to be made of plastic. Designer sunglasses can be manufactured with glass and metal, or in very rare circumstances, gems and diamonds. However, affordable sunglasses for the average American are often made of acetate and polycarbonate. Olympic Eyewear, who sell wholesale sunglasses and discount sunglasses, make their lenses out of polycarbonate plastic.

How Sustainable are Sunglasses?

When it comes to climate change, plastic gets a bad name, and rightly so. Around 100 million tons of plastic is dumped into landfills around the world annually (and  plastic lasts in the ground for 400 years on average). Recycling plastic as opposed to dumping it in the ground is of the utmost importance in our efforts to decrease the effects of climate change. Polycarbonate plastic is used for things such as mobile phones, water bottles, and yes, sunglasses. Its strength and versatility have their upsides and downsides; it is so widely used that is it extremely common. Polycarbonate is strong and has good resistance to shattering on impact. Crucially, it is recyclable.

Polycarbonate plastics can be heated until they reach their melting point without losing its reusable value. This is that which gives polycarbonate some sustainability points; most plastics lose their ability to be reshaped and repurposed after being heated, rendering them useless. Polycarbonate fits the definition of recycling perfectly, making new from old. Considering it is still a plastic, and plastic is not biodegradable, it is important for polycarbonate to be constantly reused. Good Citizens, a company operating out of Sydney, Australia, recycle one 600ml plastic water bottle to make the frames for a pair of their sunglasses. They are not the only company trying to improve the sustainability of the eyewear industry.

Affordability and Sustainability

There is a multitude of ventures attempting several new ways of manufacturing sunglasses. Proof Eyewear makes sunglasses from wood, recycled aluminum, and plant-based acetate. They offer a 40% discount on new pairs when a used or broken pair is returned to them, and they also pledge to plant five trees for every purchase. Solo Eyewear, another company, donate 10% of its profit to eye-related conditions such as cataract surgery and eye exams. Their sunglasses are made from recycled bamboo, wood, and plant-based acetate. Genusee are from Flint, Michigan, and have close ties to the community. Genusee use recycled plastic water bottles to make their eyewear, and the majority of their supply comes from the area affected by the freshwater crisis. They employ people from low-income backgrounds and give 1% of their profits to children in the city.

The issue with these albeit potentially brilliant and forward-thinking companies is the same thing that is facing a huge number of industries. That is, making their sustainability efforts widely affordable to consumers. The aforementioned companies’ sunglasses retail at an average of $99. This is comparable to what many designer brands offer. Nevertheless, it is still out of reach for a majority of American consumers. An assorted dozen sunglasses are available at wholesalers Olympic Eyewear for $30, for example, with each pair retailing at around $15-$25. Trading a lower price for the environment is a sacrifice that most of us have to make, and until fully sustainable options are more cost-effective, things are unlikely to change.

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