As of August 2020, Vision Aid Overseas will no longer accept unwanted, used spectacles from the optical sector and general public for recycling.

History of recycling spectacles at Vision Aid Overseas (VAO)

From its founding in 1987 Vision Aid Overseas accepted unwanted, used spectacles to help it achieve its mission. Until the year 2010, this meant reusing used spectacles in the delivery of international eye health projects in developing countries. But in 2010, in response to a growing body of evidence that this approach was not best practice, Vision Aid Overseas changed its policy on the reuse of used spectacles.

From 2010, Vision Aid Overseas has continued to accept unwanted, used spectacles but only for recycling purposes. Most of the used spectacles are collected in around 2,000 participating Optical Practices around the UK, or by community groups, and delivered to the Vision Aid Overseas Crawley office, for sorting and collection for recycling.

Vision Aid Overseas has recycled around 3.5 million pairs of used spectacles every year, at no cost to the optical sector or members of the public (though some people chose to make donations).

The main source of income from spectacles recycling in the past has been from the gold content in some metal frames. In more recent years this income has been increased by online and direct sales of used retro and fashion frames to selected dealers in the UK. All remaining spectacles were then collected by approved waste carriers for re-processing into alternative plastic and metal products where possible.

For many years, the income generated through this recycling scheme has helped support VAO’s eye health programmes in our partner countries, delivering eye health services and low-cost new glasses to those in need.

However, the recycling scheme no longer raises enough income to adequately cover its costs and therefore VAO has taken the decision to close its recycling scheme in 2020.

This decision was made after a thorough, participatory review process (but it should be noted that the closure has been bought forward as a direct result of the Coronavirus crisis in 2020 and its impact both on the charity and the optical sector).

The Review Process

Late in 2018 a working group was convened to review the recycling operations of VAO, comprising staff, trustees, and volunteers. The group worked within a Terms of Reference and members of the group volunteered for designated tasks. The review included both desk-based research and consultations, both internal and external.

External consultations were conducted via face to face meetings, phone calls and emails with pertinent stakeholders, including corporates from the manufacturing, optometry, dispensing and retail areas of the optical sector; professional bodies for the optical sector; and waste management and recycling entities.

Final findings were presented at the VAO Board meeting in February 2020, when the Board signed off on the recommendation that VAO should wind down its own recycling operation by the end of December 2020 and continue discussions with recycling providers and corporates who may together take forward a new recycling scheme. It decided against a paid for recycling model as the research showed it not to be economically viable.

The impact of Coronavirus in April 2020

We temporarily closed the recycling operation in response to the Coronavirus crisis at the beginning of April 2020, and it has remained closed.

We have since made the decision not to try and re-open the recycling operation, as there are only a couple of months between August and the pre-planned closure at the end of December 2020.

The decision was in part economical but was also made to reduce the risk to our staff who would be receiving and sorting used, personal items (spectacles) at a time when coronavirus remains prevalent in the UK.

Recycling – what now?

VAO will no longer accept unwanted, used spectacles from the optical sector and general public for recycling.

As a charity, VAO must legally and morally pursue its mission, which is ‘to enable people living in poverty to access affordable spectacles and eye care’. This remains unchanged and it is where we will focus our efforts. Put simply, we do not exist to recycle spectacles. You can see how we change lives here

We recognise that the closure of our recycling scheme means that many people will be looking for an alternative for their used glasses. We have published some FAQs and have provided some explanatory materials to high street practices to help, where we can. However, VAO is a small charity, and we can only do so much.

VAO will continue to take part in conversations with its corporate partners to learn more about any alternatives they choose to provide for the recycling of spectacles in the UK.

As consumers, we can all look to ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ responsibly. Consumers can also bring about change by talking to retailers and manufacturers about sustainability, environmental impact, and responsible end of life for products.

Recognition and thanks

There is a justifiably proud history to the successes of Vision Aid Overseas based upon its recycling scheme. We are sincerely grateful to everyone who has contributed, from our hard-working staff and volunteers, to the thousands of practices that have collected spectacles in stores, to anyone who has dropped their used spectacles into a recycling box for VAO or sent specs to us, and to the loyal community groups, such as the Rotary and Lions, who have collected spectacles for us over so many years.

We are grateful also to the UK courier service, DX, upon whose delivery network we have relied upon for decades. Thanks to the generosity of DX, boxes of spectacles have been delivered to VAO at no cost to the charity, or to the optical sector.

A thank you to the Recycling Review Working Group

Nicola Chevis (Chief Executive Officer); Andy Holliday and Lynn Stevens (Director of Fundraising & Communications in 2018 – 2019 and 2019 – 2020); Howard Payne (Warehouse Manager); Giulio Venturi (Vision Centre Supply Manager); Lorraine Finnie (Director of Finance, resigned 2019); Peter Corbett (Treasurer, retired 2019); Geoffrey Ballantine (Trustee, resigned 2020); Lucy Devine (Trustee); and Jane Veys (Volunteer).

Further information

You can find out more about VAO’s policy change from reuse to recycling in 2010:

You can find out more about what to do if you have used spectacles for recycling: