Ah, the magic of contact lenses. You’re suddenly seeing the world without your glasses framing every view. The first contact lenses were created in 1888. They were made of glass. Bausch & Lomb commercialized the technology of soft contact lenses in 1971, and today we have much improved contact lenses that make us feel like we have perfect vision. There’s one problem, though: Proper contact lens disposal.
Up to 45 million Americans wear contact lenses. Roughly about 19% of a research study stated that they flush used contact lenses down the drain or into the toilet (where it enters the water system). The others probably throw their lenses into the garbage bin. But how to dispose of old contact lenses? Let’s find out.
What are Contact Lenses Made Of?
Plastic. Contact lenses are made of plastic. There are different types of plastics, depending on the type of contact lens, but they’re all plastic. Which means the polymers break down into microplastics. Also, contact lenses are not easily biodegradable…for obvious reasons. So they will not decompose out in the wild.
Soft contact lenses are made of soft, flexible plastics that are oxygen-permeable. Rigid gas permeable contact lenses, which are more durable and resistant to deposit buildup, are made of durable plastics. Most modern lenses are made from sophisticated high-tech polymers (soft lenses made of hydrogel and silicone hydrogel; hard lenses made of perspex; “a combination of poly (methylmethacrylate), silicones and fluoropolymers to create a soft material that allows oxygen to pass through the lens to the eye”). And there are extended wear contact lenses as well as disposable contact lenses.
But any pair of contact lenses, once you’re done with them, will have to be disposed of (the same goes for spectacles: donate or recycle your old eyeglasses). The way many of us do this currently is by tossing our used lenses into the drain – which takes them into the waterways, and ultimately into the food chain. But there are other wrong ways to dispose of your lenses:
How NOT to Dispose of Old Contact Lenses
1 // Don’t Throw Contact Lenses Down the Drain
According to a first-of-its-kind study by Arizona State University in 2018, 1.8 billion to 3.36 billion lenses are being flushed into the waterways every year. This is about 20-23 tons of plastic trash in the water system.
Aquatic animals are known to mistake microplastics for food. So the plastic from the contact lenses end up polluting our food chain with microplastics, and even nanoplastics.
Plastic specks that are small enough to enter cells or tissues might irritate just by being a foreign presence, and can inflame lung tissue and lead to cancer. Larger microplastics can cause negative effects through chemical toxicity. All these aspects, and the effects of microplastic pollution, are just being studied by scientists, but what’s certain is that it is not good.
So, do not flush your contact lenses down the drain.
2 // Don’t Throw Contact Lenses into the Recycling Bin
Recycling facilities are meant for bottles, cans, and other such recyclable items. Contact lenses are too small and thus cannot be adequately handled by regular recycling facilities.
However, please do send your lens blister packs to the recycling facility. As per Earth911, “your best bet is to separate all the different components. Tear away any paper or metal before placing blister packs in the recycling bin. All these products should be recyclable on their own, but leaving them connected will likely mean the paper or aluminum gets thrown away at the MRF.”
Or, according to Mental Floss, you can remove the foil and put the empty blister packs inside plastic bottles that go for recycling.
3 // Don’t Send Contact Lenses to the Landfill
It’s the same problem: plastics in the landfill will take time to decompose, but over decades or even centuries, that plastic will break down into microplastics and end up contaminating our food, the air, and water.
So, what do we do?!
How to Recycle Contact Lenses
1 // Recycling Used Contact Lenses
These are the best existing option for responsible disposal of used contact lenses:
1 / Bausch + Lomb, along with TerraCycle, has the ONE by ONE Recycling Program for recycling contact lenses, blister packs and blister-pack foil.
2 / They also have the Biotrue+ Recycling Program for eyecare products (lens case, solution bottles, etc).
3 / Contact lens brands such as CooperVision have their own contact lens recycling programs. Contact the brand that you use, and find out what they offer. You could also check with your nearest optometrist if they can help with recycling of used contact lenses.
2 // What to Do with Unused, Unopened Contact Lenses
If your unused, unopened contact lenses are within the expiry date (unexpired), then you can donate them to the non-profit organization DonateContacts, or to places like Goodwill. DonateContacts provide underprivileged kids with access to free, quality contact lenses. As of September 2022, they have processed and donated over 3 million contact lenses, 110,000 bottles of contact lens solution and 20,000 contact lens cases.
If the contact lenses are past the expiry date, then you will have to dispose of them the same way you would dispose of a pair of used lenses.
Terracycle ONE by ONE Free Recycling Program
Collect your old contact lenses, your blister packs and foil, and then you can do either of two options:
1 / Check if your local eye care office is participating in the ONE by ONE contact lens recycling program. If they are, they will accept a drop-off of your items.
2 / If your local eye doctor isn’t part of the program, suggest it to them (spread the word!), and then ship your materials to TerraCycle for recycling.
For every qualifying shipment weighing at least 2 pounds, Bausch + Lomb will donate $1 per pound to Optometry Giving Sight, a global initiative that works to prevent blindness and impaired vision for those who do not have access to eye exams and glasses/contacts.
Start Recycling Used Contact Lenses
You may or may not have ever considered recycling your old contact lenses. But, as with everything else made of plastic, contact lenses need to be dealt with properly at the end of their life. Yes, disposing of your contacts in an eco-friendly way isn’t easy. But we have some very good options, as noted in this post, and we can all try to adhere to them, to the extent possible.
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