Throwing Away Time

Monday, July 11, 2016

Virginia Postrel takes a look at what she correctly concludes is a "feel-good waste of money:" donating eyeglasses to the poor. Postrel, whose childhood myopia and frugal parents teamed up to make her especially sympathetic to those who can't afford eyeglasses, encountered a paper that appeared in Optometry and Vision Science back in March. This paper explored the economics of recycling eyeglasses versus manufacturing new ones:

The glasses get packed up and sent to their destination where, unlike the ready-made glasses, they need to be sorted. First, someone has to go through and throw out all the pairs that are completely unusable, either because they're in poor condition or because they have progressive lenses that are too customized to be practical for new users. Then someone has to test each remaining pair using a focimeter to determine the prescription. Pairs whose lenses have different powers or are designed to correct significant astigmatism also get discarded at this stage. They, too, are unlikely to match a new wearer.
All of these steps take time and effort, and there are others. The paper concludes:
Because recycled glasses require more labor-intensive screening and have such a high rejection rate, each surviving pair winds up costing a lot more than a ready-made pair: $20.49 for the 7 percent survival rate and $17.86 at a more optimistic 11 percent rate.

But that's a deliberate underestimate. It costs $78 to ship 100 pairs of recycled spectacles to their destination, so the calculation charged each pair with 78 cents of shipping costs.

"We decided, somewhat generously, to only allocate the cost of transporting each pair (whether it was usable or not) in the costing of recycled specs," explains lead author David A. Wilson, the Asia-Pacific research manager for the International Centre for Eyecare Education, in an e-mail. But only seven out of every 100 pairs were usable, so the real shipping cost per useable pair wasn't 78 cents. It was $78 divided by seven, or $11.14 -- about as much as the total cost of delivering a pair of ready-made glasses.
Postrel's advice for anyone wishing to help those requiring glasses is that sending money would be better, but there are other lessons to be learned here. To begin with, more people should consider the idea that similar reasoning might apply to many other commonly recycled items. I am sure that in many cases, people who fetishize "saving" easily-replaced material objects, would learn, upon closer examination, that they are wasting irreplaceable time and effort.

Rather than condemning our "throw-away society," people should praise it.

-- CAV

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