Earth Day: How To Be Greener With Your Contacts

If you care about the environment, you probably take lots of steps to be greener: Recycling, choosing reusable shopping bags and refillable water bottles, skipping fast fashion in favor of sustainable or thrifted clothing. But if you wear contacts, it can be tough to minimize the impact they have on our environment. In honor of Earth Day, here’s what you can do to reduce contact lens pollution.

How do contact lenses affect the environment?

Americans wear, and throw away, lots of contact lenses: About 2 or 3 billion a year, based on estimates in a recent study from Arizona State University.

While that’s not a huge share of our trash overall, some of the things that make your disposable lenses great for vision correction, like durability and ease of use, also make them extra hard on the environment.

When we wash our contacts down the drain, we ultimately add to the buildup of microplastics in lakes and oceans. These tiny particles harm fish and other aquatic animals who mistake microplastics for food. From there, microplastics can work their way up the food chain to humans.   

Soft contacts are made of silicone hydrogel, a type of thin, flexible, medical-grade plastic that is durable and safe for your eyes. Their durability means they’re unlikely to tear or break down when you’re wearing them. Unfortunately, this also means they aren’t biodegradable. When they do break apart, it just leads to smaller bits of microplastic floating around.

Since contacts are already small and bendable, they tend to slip through filters that otherwise keep plastic waste out of our water supply. Once contacts enter sewage treatment plants, the ASU researchers found that not only do lenses fail to break down like other types of trash, they also absorb other environmental pollutants. And since contacts are hard to remove in wastewater treatment facilities, they carry pollutants out into our soil, lakes and oceans.

What’s being done to make contacts more sustainable?

We’re still holding out hope that in the future you’ll be able to get sustainable contacts made from plant-based, biodegradable materials like soybean oil. But for now, contact lens recycling programs and reduced packaging are the most effective ways to limit contact lens pollution.

Brands like Johnson & Johnson, Bausch and Lomb and CooperVision are redesigning the packaging for lenses, contacts solutions and shipping materials to reduce waste. And one contacts maker, Bausch and Lomb, has a program where you can recycle all brands of disposable lenses.

What steps can I take to be greener with my contacts?

When you shuck off your old contacts, do you toss them in the wastebasket? Or send them down the drain? One of those actions is better for the environment than the other, but most of us don’t know it.

About 20% of contacts users flush their old lenses, according to the ASU researchers. But doing that puts your contacts on an express train to microplastic city. Instead, put your contacts in the trash. Sending them to the landfill might not give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. But it does less harm to our soil and water supply.

Here are some other steps you can take to limit contact lens pollution:

  • Use a special program to recycle your lenses and their packaging. Bausch and Lomb’s One By One program lets you drop off or mail your used lenses and blister packs to a specialist, TerraCycle, for recycling.
  • Recycle or compost other contacts packages and containers. You can recycle cleaning and storage containers through conventional programs, and cardboard boxes and paper instructions for your lenses and solution can be recycled or composted.
  • Switch from 1-day lenses to longer-wear disposables. Choosing 2-week or 1-month disposables over 1-days means you’ll throw fewer contacts into the landfill each year. While some zero-waste proponents prefer this approach, you’ll want to weigh it against the environmental impact of the plastic bottles of disinfecting solution and storage containers that you’ll need to use for non-daily lenses. According to a 2003 study, monthlies may still come out on top. Check with your eye doctor about what options are the best fit for your eyes.

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