Dynamist Blog

Recycling Eyeglasses Is a Feel-Good Waste

My new Bloomberg View column looks at the false economy of recycling eyeglasses. Here's the lead:

One of the public libraries I use regularly has a box where people can donate their old eyeglasses. Whenever I see it, I regret having nothing to contribute. That's because I've let my personal experience trump my economic good sense.

I have a special appreciation for just how valuable glasses can be when you can't see.

I spent the third grade borrowing glasses from the girls who sat on either side of me. The ophthalmologist had advised my parents to wait to get me glasses, because my eyes were bound to change and they'd just have to buy a second pair. (We were not poor -- my father was an engineer -- but the doctor was a paternalist of the old school.) By the time I got my first pair of glasses, the only thing I could read on the eye chart was the big E.

I've long since had my myopia surgically corrected -- the proverbial miracle of modern medicine -- and now stash cheap over-the-counter reading glasses in every room of my house. Still, I remember what it was like to need glasses and not be able to get them. So I sympathize with charities that collect eyeglasses to distribute to people who can't otherwise afford them.

But such efforts turn out to be a terrible waste, for reasons that are completely logical once you think about them. The case of recycled eyeglasses illustrates how easy it is to fool ourselves when we think about thrift, waste and charity. We overestimate the importance of the physical things we can see and forget about the real costs of time and attention, as well as the importance of intangible values like aesthetics to the people we're trying to help.

Read the whole thing here.

In response, my friend (and Bloomberg View colleague) Adam Minter, who does great reporting on the scrap business in China and is writing a book on the subject, emails:

One of the themes that I'm hitting very hard in my book is that recycling is a fundamentally economic activity. Nobody sorts somebody else's garbage for free. Most of the developing world understands that, while the developed world - the EU and US, in particular - seems intent on seeing recycling as a moral activity (and a means of tribal identity) above all else. Unfortunately, when people view waste and recycling in moral terms, rather than economic ones, they have an unerring tendency to demand local governments set up recycling programs that are destined to lose money from the get-go (like curbside recycling in spread-out Houston). Meanwhile, the folks who know how to make money from recycling, like scrap yards, are denigrated and often subjected to totally unreasonable barriers to entry (and exit). Seems like similar dynamics at play in the glasses trade (with some obvious differences).

It's interesting, too, how much of your piece reflects the overall dynamics of the global recycling trade. Shipping and sorting costs are THE determining factors for whether and where something is recycled - whether it be a bale of old cardboard, or pieces of shredded American automobiles (bound for China). Nice reminder for me how the rules of the road, if you will, are uniform up and down the waste trade.

(Check out Adam's new Bloomberg View column on Chinese microbloggers' reactions to the Chen case here.)

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