Contact Lenses Are Polluting The Ocean — Here's How To Actually Recycle Them (Spoiler: It's Not Easy)

mbg Associate Health Editor By Darcy McDonough, M.S.
mbg Associate Health Editor
Darcy McDonough is the associate health editor at mbg. She has a master’s degree in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Photo by Ania Boniecka

Summer 2018 will go down as the summer we said goodbye to unnecessary plastic waste. Starbucks committed to eliminating plastic straws in all locations by 2020, IKEA banned all single-use plastics from its stores, and entire cities (like Seattle) banned the use of plastic bags and straws. And now we have one more thing to add to our consciousness-raising list: People are starting to understand the impact of contact lenses.

According to new research out of the American Chemical Society, 20 percent of people who wear contact lenses dispose of them by flushing them down the toilet or sink. But as medical devices, contact lenses are specifically designed to withstand harsh environments, and therefore they don't biodegrade easily. Flushing contact lenses is particularly concerning because their size and flexibility allow them to slip through filters meant to keep nonbiological waste out of wastewater treatment plants.

The study found that the chemical and mechanical processing at these treatment facilities were unable to fully break down contact lenses, leaving them as part of the final matrix of treated water. Post-treatment, wastewater is typically spread on fields, where contact lenses can make their way into surface water and cause environmental damage. Eek.

It may seem like a small thing, but with over 45 million contact wearers in the United States, all that plastic adds up. We are talking about 22 metric tons of contact lenses being improperly disposed of every year here, unnecessarily adding to the hundreds of thousands of tons of microplastics floating in our oceans and wreaking havoc on our environment.

So what is the right way to dispose of contact lenses?

It turns out, properly disposing of contact lenses is pretty tricky. One option is to throw them in the garbage. While this will keep them out of our water systems, it sends them to landfill—which is not really any better. Unfortunately, you can't just toss your contacts in the recycling bin and call it a day, either. Due to their size and packaging materials, recycling facilities typically cannot handle contact lens processing, so they are diverted to landfills. In order to actually be recycled, contact lenses need to be processed at a specialty recycling facility.

This doesn't mean that all eco-conscious contact-wearers must stick to glasses, though. Fortunately, in an effort to minimize the waste generated by disposable contact lenses and facilitate the recycling process, some eye care companies have started their own recycling initiatives. Through these programs, individuals can ship their used contacts to TerraCycle (a company that specializes in recycling the hard-to-recycle) for free or drop them off at participating retailers.

If your contact lens provider is not up to speed on recycling yet, don't worry—the Bausch + Laum One by One program is an awesome resource. This program accepts disposable contacts from any brand, so you can do your part to keep the earth clear of microplastics and enjoy the convenience of contact lenses. Very summer 2018, if you ask us.

Looking to reduce your footprint? Check out these 7 reusable items to always keep on hand.

And are you ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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