Friday, May 04, 2012

I Never Thought About It Like This Before

Each year when I get a new pair of glasses, I put my old pair in the glove box of my car and take the old glove box pair and donate them.  I don't pat myself on the back for doing this, or go have an ice cream sundae to reward my own generosity, it's just something that I thought about once for maybe 3 seconds and then just did without any further thought.

And it's a silly thing to do, when you actually think about it:
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.

In a paper published in March in the journal Optometry and Vision Science, four researchers compare the full costs of delivering used glasses to the costs of instead delivering ready-made glasses in standard powers (like my drugstore readers, but for myopia as well). The authors find that recycled glasses cost nearly twice as much per usable pair.
Here's the kicker:
Recycling old glasses makes people feel generous and thrifty. They believe they’re helping people and saving money. They think the glasses they donate are “free,” because they don’t consider all the hidden costs of sorting and shipping them. And they don’t realize just how cheap manufacturing new glasses has become. If they really wanted to help people see, they’d send money. Unlike leftovers, it’s guaranteed to fit.
I think the author missed one key point, and that's that that donators "believe they're helping people and saving money" at no additional cost to themselves.  Now that I know that I'm not really helping anyone, I have to consider if it's better just to throw my old specs out--especially considering that I have a funky prescription.


Jean said...

That does make a lot more sense. For one thing, by the time I'm done with my glasses they are pretty worn (in fact my last pair fell apart in my hands, and I was lucky that the optometrist was able to order an overstock of the same model, so now I have old lenses in new frames). New, strong frames would be much better.

Actually I've never donated my old glasses, because of the wear and my -12 correction. But anyway, they're right.

Peter Reilly said...

What is even stranger is when people donate to food pantries by buying extra groceries and putting them in boxes.

allen (in Michigan) said...

On a related note I was tempted for a while to recycle until I found out that it was both counter-productive, more expensive to the city then landfill usage and pointless.