Millions of Contact Lenses Pollute Our Water

By Larraine Roulston:

It is common knowledge that when eye glasses need to be replaced, the used pair can be left at the optometrist’s office or deposited at similar participating retail collection boxes for those in need. Disposal awareness unfortunately is not as clear for contact lenses. Eye care specialists advise patients to place disposable lenses in the trash, but they rarely offer recycling services or advise against flushing them away.

Approximately 45 million Americans wear contacts,15 million of whom wear the soft plastic disposable discs that are tossed out daily. To trace the end-life of lenses, Arizona State University researchers, Charles Rolsky (a Ph.D. student working with Varun Kelkar)and Rolf Ulrich Halden, revealed that millions of contact lenses end up in our water.

Upon interviewing municipal sewage plant workers who confirmed that they have observed lenses in wastewater, the researchers began to test the effects. After dropping lenses in liquids of varying densities, the researchers found that the lenses inevitably sank to the bottom, thus making them dangerous for bottom feeding fish that ingest these small plastic fragments. (Other studies have shown that plastics absorb chemicals and can eventually find their way into our food chain.) Regarding the trio’s local survey, Rolsky stated, “We found that 15 to 20 percent of contact wearers are flushing the lenses down the sink or toilet.” The Arizona team estimates that between 6 and 10 metric tons of plastic lenses are entering U.S. wastewater plants annually. Lenses are adding to the microplastic problem found in oceans, lakes and commercial bottled water. When sewage sludgecontacts land, these small particles enter the soil. The team’s results were presented at an annual meeting of the American Chemistry Society.

Rolsky would like to see contact lens manufacturers provide labelling on every package stating not only that disposable lenses be included with regular trash if recycling is not available, but also explaining what NOT to do. These instructions could be patterned after that provided by surgeons who perform cataract removals: they state explicitly behaviors to avoid, like “Do not bend over or lift anything heavy such as removinga casserole from the oven.” The problem of improper disposal can be avoided easily with sufficient advertising. As well, optical lens companies can avail themselves of free recycling programs by partnering with Terracycle. Bausch & Lomb offers a program for its Biotrue line, which recently gathered 1.9 million contact lenses within one year.

Thanks to these researchers, here are a few suggestions on how you can help solve this environmental issue:

  • Talk to your friends who wear contact lenses.
  • Post lens disposal information on social media.
  • Contact local optometrists and ask them to have posters created to highlight the hazards of flushing contact lenses into the sewage system. You also can inquire about including safe disposal instructions on printed literature and packaging.

We are now witnessing a growing determination to “skip the straw.” Faced with the accumulation of contact lenses in the ocean, citizens and corporations can solve this less visual issue with public education.

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Larraine writes children’s adventure stories on composting and pollinating. To order, visit www.castlecompost.com

September 17, 2018

Larraine Roulston

A mother of 4 with 6 wonderful grandchildren, Larraine has been active in the environmental movement since the early l970s. When the first blue boxes for recycling were launched in her region, she began writing a local weekly newspaper column to promote the 3Rs. Since that time, she has been a freelance writer for several publications, including BioCycle magazine. As a composting advocate, Larraine authors children's adventure stories that combine composting facts with literature. Currently she is working on the 6th book of her Pee Wee at Castle Compost series, which can be viewed at www.castlecompost.com. As well, Larraine and her husband Pete have built a straw bale home and live in Ontario.

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