Contact lenses and plastic pollution – How to properly dispose of your lenses

Friday, 24 August 2018
Contact lenses and plastic pollution – How to properly dispose of your lenses

There’s a growing concern about the amount of plastic waste that is ending up in our oceans, and now attention is turning to the use of contact lenses and how wearers dispose of them.

Although contacts make up a tiny fraction of plastic waste, it’s still important for contact lens wearers to be mindful of how they dispose of them, particularly if they wear daily disposable lenses. Researchers are warning of the danger that contact lenses that are not disposed of in the correct manner may be causing to waterway systems and the environment.

We examine both the problem and some potential solutions:


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The Problem

A survey of US contact lens wearers “found that 15 to 20 percent of contact wearers are flushing their lenses down the sink or toilet,” said researcher Charlie Rolsky, a Ph.D. student at ASU.

So just how much waste does that equate to?

Having worn contact lenses his entire adult life, researcher Rolf Halden of ASU’s Biodesign Institute’s Center for Environmental Health Engineering began researching the issue when he started wondering how lenses might be contributing to the build-up of plastics – particularly micro plastics -  in our water system. The researcher claimed that contact lenses could “contribute a load of at least 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) per year.” He calculated that the packaging adds about 29 million pounds (13 million kilograms) of polypropylene to the waste from contacts.

Roughly 45 million people in the United States alone wear contact lenses, this amounts to at least 13 billion lenses worn each year. If one were to calculate contact lens use in the UK and the rest of the world, the total amount would be significantly more.

Having tracked the journey of a contact lens either flushed down a toilet or thrown into a sink hole, researchers found that they ended up in water treatment plants, become part of sewerage sludge, or flow into the ocean. While they fall apart, they do not degrade. Fish and smaller microorganisms such as plankton often misjudge the micro-particles as food, as these particles then work their way up the food chain and into the human body.


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The Solution

Contact lens wearers are advised to dispose of their contact lenses in solid waste bins, and avoid throwing them into the sink or the toilet. Those who are extremely eco-conscious may even want to switch to monthly or two weekly lenses to reduce their waste.

The idea of customers collecting and recycling their contact lenses is a relatively new one. Currently, Bausch & Lomb are the only company that has a contact lens recycling program, however, this is only available for customers in the US. The program recycles the lenses, blister packs and packaging. Bausch and Lomb will accept waste products from any contact lens manufacturer, meaning wearers of products from other companies can also send their waste, positioning Bausch & Lomb as a leader in this area. One hopes companies in the UK and the rest of the world will follow this example.

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