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Going green: sustainability in the optical sector

Glasses in nature

Corporate commitment to environmental sustainability in optical manufacturing is on the rise, and it’s having a trickle-down effect to greener thinking at the practice level. Insight looks at how the optical sector is taking steps to reduce its footprint.

In January 2018, China’s importation ban on 24 types of recyclable materials left Australia’s waste management industry reeling. Described as a wake-up call by some, and a crisis by others, it has prompted the waste management and manufacturing industries to reconsider their methods.

Climate change has also further embedded environmental concerns into the public consciousness, following extreme weather events in Australia. The 2019–20 Australian bushfire season, colloquially known as Black Summer, resulted in 34 deaths and destroyed 3,500 homes. More recently, extreme weather in March caused severe flooding in New South Wales and Queensland, claiming three lives.

With the environment and the planet weighing more heavily on people’s minds, “sustainable retail” is on the rise, with consumers evidently choosing to spend more on sustainable products.

According a Forbes report in 2019, 54% of Gen Z (currently aged six to 24 years old) are willing to spend an incremental 10% or more on sustainable products, with 50% of Millennials (also known as Gen Y, currently 25 to 40 years old) saying the same. This compares to 34% of Generation X (currently 41 to 56 years old) and 23% of Baby Boomers (currently 57 to 75 years old), leading the publication to conclude that the quest for sustainability appears to strengthen with every generation in the US.

For the optical sector, this could serve as a stark warning – or an opportunity. The production, packaging and disposal of ophthalmic lenses, frames and contact lens waste are issues consumers will increasingly be concerned about, which will be transferred to practices, then ultimately suppliers and manufacturers.

Optometry Australia CEO Lyn Brodie says that as consumers become more environmentally conscious, the profession will need to start finding ways that optometry can reduce its collective footprint.

Lyn Brodie Optometry Australia CEO
Lyn Brodie, Optometry Australia CEO.

“We are starting to explore a number of initiatives to understand what might be possible. One area is microplastics which would include disposable contact lens. Ultimately initiatives will be developed to support our members, their patients and broader environment,” she says.

Brodie says there is an increasing awareness of the connection between climate and health.

“To explain what we mean by this, we only need to consider the impact on eye health of the extensive bushfires in 2019–20,” Brodie says, with a NSW survey finding that most people experienced at least one minor health symptom from bushfire smoke in December 2019 to January, including eye and throat irritation.

“As this field gains traction, we need to be at the forefront of understanding and knowledge to lead the profession in dealing with the outcomes, while also work on prevention by finding ways to combat climate change.”

Some medical experts are calling climate change a health emergency, which they say is already contributing to life-threatening illness and deaths. In their view, the Australian healthcare sector is part of the problem – contributing about 7% to Australia’s national carbon emission footprint.

In response to this, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) are calling on the Australian healthcare sector to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2040, with an interim emission reduction target of 80% by 2030.

Creating a greener practice

Adelaide optometrist Ms Margaret Kirkman believes sustainability is “the next big frontier” in the optical sector.

A member of ProVision and Optometry Australia, she says individual actions only go so far but more can be done at an organisational level.

It’s not surprising then that she is “completely behind” ProVision’s decision to take action on sustainability. The network has identified sustainability as an objective in the next three-year plan and notified suppliers in February 2020 of its intent to move towards sustainable product supply.

“We’ve taken a corporate social responsibility position, and although our plans were interrupted by COVID last year, we have re-engaged with suppliers in February this year, and communicated with our members about our intentions in this area,” CEO Mr Steven Johnston says.

Steven Johnston ProVision CEO
Steven Johnston, ProVision CEO.

“We’re in the midst of conversations with reputable suppliers, asking what their position is on sustainability, and making sure they’re not engaged in modern slavery, taking into consideration that our suppliers aren’t manufacturers; they source product predominantly out of China, including hinges, nose pads, and raw materials for acetate.”

Johnston says it’s a long road, but many sectors are on the same path, including the clothing and textiles, and electronics industries.

“It’s a complex problem, and there’s not a simple answer,” he says. “In three years’ time, we hope to be in a far better position, but we haven’t set targets yet, as we don’t know what position we’re starting from until we’ve established our suppliers’ position on sustainability.”

Johnston says some ProVision members are adopting incredibly good processes in their own practices – solar energy and recycling, for example.

But as Kirkman points out, practices shouldn’t only stock an ethically sourced range of frames in isolation: this is known as ‘greenwashing’, the process of conveying a false impression that a company’s products are environmentally friendly. Sustainable choices need to be implemented across all facets of the practice.

Meg Kirkman Complete Vision Care
Meg Kirkman, Complete Vision Care.

Kirkman and Johnston agree the layers of plastic and cardboard used in packaging optical products is problematic.

“I’m horrified at the amount of packaging; the volume that comes in is incredible. Each pair of frames has plastic sleeves on the temple, placed in a plastic bag, bubble wrapped, and then wrapped in more plastic. Knowing a supplier that used less packaging would influence my decision-making,” she says.

In 2013, Kirkman installed solar panels at the independent practice she owns – Complete Vision Care – a leased property located in a medical precinct.

“It has massively reduced my power bills, but originally I thought I couldn’t install solar panels because I don’t own the building. That wasn’t the case, and although I don’t own the building, I do own the solar panels. I can sell them if I move. It’s an asset I own that depreciates, so it reduces my tax bill too.”

Kirkman – who not only wants to do her part for the environment, but advocate for change too – encourages her patients to recycle, particularly her contact lens patients.

Up until earlier this year, Bausch + Lomb (B+L) have been partnering with TerraCycle, a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste, to recycle contact lenses and packaging over the last four years. It will consider sponsoring the program – which reportedly saved more than 1.6 million pieces of waste from landfill – again in future, but in 2021 B+L has chosen to contribute to a different environmental cause by supporting the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) initiative. It ensures all marketing materials are certified with a guarantee of environmental and social responsibility, covering both the forests they are sourced from as well as every stage of their production.

Optometrists can continue to recycle contact lens blister packs directly via TerraCycle.

“We’re continuing,” Kirkman says. “I give contact lens patients a white paper bag with the recycling symbol to dispose of their lenses and packaging, and they drop the bag back into the practice.”

Kirkman is also trying to generate less paper waste in her practice, favouring electronic communication with patients – where appropriate – and suppliers.

She says online programs like ProVision’s ProSupply, which offers more than 20,000 supply and fit frame options that can be shipped direct to a practice’s preferred laboratory, are helpful in reducing waste.

“We use display stock to display our range of frames, and a patient’s chosen frame is sent directly from the supplier to the lab. This system generates less paperwork, is more efficient and saves on transport costs. I favour suppliers that use this system. Providing the online catalogue is up-to-date with discontinued stock or frames that are out-of-stock, it makes ordering and resupplying stock seamless,” she says.

Kirkman urges practice owners to look at every step of the supply chain.

“Look at sustainability on a human scale; avoid exploitation. A lot of optical products are manufactured in China. It doesn’t resonate with patients to change one element of your practice to be environmentally-friendly – you need to make changes everywhere.”

For many corporations in the eyecare sector, sustainability has become a key driver across many facets of their business.

Zeiss, Hoya, and CooperVision have shared with Insight some initiatives they are implementing to protect the planet.

Headquartered in Germany, Zeiss set up operations in Australia in Sydney in 1961, followed by New Zealand in 1978 and Adelaide in 2005 (when Zeiss merged with SOLA Optical, established in 1960 in South Australia). In 2017, Zeiss’ Adelaide manufacturing site relocated from Lonsdale to a new $6 million premises at Tonsley Innovation District. (Formerly Mitsubishi Motors assembly plant which closed in 2008, Tonsley is Australia’s first innovation district and home to more than 30 businesses).

Around that same time [2017], the Zeiss Vision Care strategic business unit began to pool more than 280 initiatives in a global program to drive sustainability. One of those was a shift to solar energy at the Tonsley site.

Mr Brenton Paris is Zeiss Vision Care’s operations manager in Australia and New Zealand. He is responsible for operations across four manufacturing sites: Tonsley, Sydney, Caloundra on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, and Auckland, New Zealand, overseeing more than 70 employees.

Brenton Paris Zeiss
Brenton Paris, Zeiss Vision Care.

Paris says moving to solar power at the Tonsley laboratory is part of Zeiss’s commitment to environmental sustainability in line with the company’s “green, safe, and responsible” motto. Zeiss’s program to drive sustainability is based on three key pillars: energy consumption, water consumption, plastic waste.

“We’re fortunate to be located in a technology park in Tonsley, with access to renewable energy. A percentage of our power comes from renewable solar – at 60% right now – but plans are in motion to progress to 100% solar power,” Paris explains.

“Where water consumption is concerned, we’re moving away from wet-edging – which involves cutting lenses using a diamond wheel where water acts as a lubricant and wastewater goes down the drain. Now we’re using dry-edging with CNC-type machinery – and there’s no wastewater,” Paris says.

CNC stands for Computerised Numerical Control. It is a computerised manufacturing process in which pre-programed software and code controls the movement of production equipment.

Paris puts a ballpark figure of more than $1 million to invest in CNC technology in optical manufacturing but says the single investment represents superior technology and fits with the company’s sustainability program.

In terms of plastic waste, Paris says every part of the process is a challenge.

“At our Tonsley site, our aim is to produce no landfill. We work with waste disposal providers, such as Veolia, to recycle or repurpose waste, such as waste materials used in concrete manufacturing.”

Zeiss Tonsley site
Zeiss Vision Care in Adelaide’s Tonsley Innovation District plans to increase its reliance on solar to 100%.

Although the project is Tonsley-based, Paris says the target is to eliminate landfill across all four Australian and New Zealand sites. But not all initiatives that contribute to sustainable practice are major.

“Small projects, like reducing paper, moving away from printing, and recycling are really in every facet of our business,” he says.

Zeiss has a large recycling program in place, including recycling cardboard boxes and packaging materials, and printing marketing point-of-sale materials on recycled materials. Its packaging materials are also produced using recycled materials.

“These are not cost-down or cost-neutral initiatives but there is an expectation to be environmentally aware and responsible. It is expected by our staff, by our clients, and our end customers,” Paris explains.

An organisation-wide approach

The Hoya Group established an Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) committee in August 2019, with the aim of “identifying items that contribute to the long-term growth of [the company], promoting their disclosure and pushing ahead with ESG activities”.

The group identified greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, energy management, water and wastewater management, waste and hazardous materials management and ecological impacts as environmental issues.

It identified supply chain management, materials sourcing and efficiency, and physical impacts of climate change under ‘Business Model and Innovation’.

The company’s Australian national training and development manager Mr Ulli Hentschel says efforts to reduce waste are ongoing across the entire organisation, including offices and the main manufacturing sites and labs.

Ulli Hentschel Hoya
Ulli Hentschel, Hoya Australia.

“Initiatives range from using more sustainable solutions in offices, such as reusable water bottles and reducing use of plastic in general, to recycling and reducing the overall environmental impact through the production process,” he says.

Hoya’s Australian operations is focused on making steps to improve environmental sustainability – both big and small improvements.

“Our [Sydney] lab is now operating with 100% LED lighting which is about 80% more energy efficient than our previous fluorescent and incandescent lighting. We’re in the process of switching the packaging for our lens cloths from plastic to paper and have already started distributing with the new packaging,” Hentschel explains.

“Wherever possible we use recycled boxes. Naturally we recycle all of the paper and board used in our labs and offices. We avoid having single use items in our staff kitchens and have provided insulated water bottles to all Hoya employees.”

Sustainable frames

Elsewhere, Italian eyewear supplier Safilo, announced in March it will begin incorporating two new materials by global advanced materials manufacturer Eastman – headquartered in the US – in its latest move to introduce more recycled products into its frames.

Eastman’s Acetate Renew and Tritan Renew materials form part of a broad portfolio of sustainable resins the company produces. Safilo will first use Eastman Tritan Renew in its Polaroid line in January 2022. The two materials will then be progressively rolled out across its broad portfolio of optical frames and sunglasses, which comprises numerous licenced and proprietary brands.

Safilo Polaroid Sustainable Collection
Safilo introduced its Polaroid Sustainable Collection earlier this year in Australia.

The Eastman deal follows an announcement in 2020 when Safilo introduced Econyl regenerated nylon in its eyewear collections, starting with the Tommy Jeans line. This was off the back of a partnership with Aquafil, a well-known global company that produces polymers and synthetic fibres.

Earlier this year, Safilo has also launched a Polaroid Sustainable Collection. The collection is made from eco polyamide, a bio-based plastic with more than 40% derived from renewable resources: from castor oil, a renewable feedstock, that’s responsibly farmed. It also incorporates eco acetate, derived from cellulose (cotton), as well as recycled metal and dedicated packaging made with recycled paper.

“We are committed to leading the way in our approach to our products and packaging without using new resources and without compromising the quality of our frames, thereby continuing to offer the same level of impeccable quality, Safilo Group Angelo Trocchia adds.

What about contact lenses?

CooperVision is also working to minimise its environmental impact and operate more sustainably.

Contact lenses manufacturing poses one dilemma – but disposal for the end-user poses another. A few years ago, researchers in the US investigating what happens to contact lenses after use surveyed 139 people, including both contact lens wearers and non-wearers. They found that 15 to 20% of contact lens wearers were flushing contacts down the sink or toilet. Discarding contacts lenses in this way may ultimately end up contributing to microplastic pollution in waterways, posing a potential threat to aquatic life.

Another experiment, on 11 different types of contact lenses, found that most lenses are denser than water, meaning they’ll sink.

This could be particularly dangerous for bottom-feeders on the seafloor that may ingest the microplastics from the lenses.

Sydney-based marketing communications manager, Ms Shannon Morrow, says CooperVision is prioritising environmentally responsible practices across four key areas: water, energy, recycling, and people.

Shannon Morrow CooperVision
Shannon Morrow, CooperVision.

“We are working to minimise environmental impact and operate more sustainably, from production improvements designed to conserve water to efforts that recycle nearly 100% of the plastics used in production,” she says.

In 2019, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority awarded CooperVision for the fifth consecutive year with its Pre-Treatment Excellence Compliance Award. Given to the company’s contact lens production and packaging facility in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, the recognition is based on adherence to operating permit conditions, made possible by ongoing investment in the site’s sustainable infrastructure and employee training.

In the same year, CooperVision launched an initiative in Sweden that offers consumers free soft contact lens recycling for all brands and manufacturers. The company said its contact lens recycle program aims to reduce plastic waste by providing a practical and easy way for wearers to recycle lenses as well as blister and foil packaging.

More recently, the company’s US headquarters in California announced a partnership with Plastic Bank to make CooperVision’s clariti 1 day portfolio of lenses the first net plastic neutral contact lenses.

Plastic Bank is a social enterprise that builds ethical recycling ecosystems in coastal communities, reprocessing the materials for reintroduction into the global supply chain. Under the agreement, for every box of clariti 1 day distributed in the US, CooperVision funds the collection, processing and reuse of general plastic waste that is equal to the weight of the plastic contained in clariti 1 day lenses and packaging.

Morrow says the program is likely to be expanded into other regions, including Asia-Pacific.