Monday, December 11, 2023

Sustainable Practices in Contact Lens Use and Disposal: Can They Be Recycled?


Just how damaging are contact lenses on the environment? Can they be recycled? Here’s how to use and dispose of them sustainably.

The impact of contact lenses, when weighted against the other environmental concerns we have to think about, is fairly minimal. So, you shouldn’t seek to cut corners with your eye health, in pursuit of an environmental benefit. But with that said, we should still be honest about the impact of the practice on the environment, and look to make savings where it’s sensible.

According to one study, 73 percent of contact lens users incorrectly thought that their lenses were biodegradable. The same study found that more than six metric tons of lenses were being dumped into the oceans every year. 

This should be of great concern to contact wearers who care about the oceans and the creatures that live in it. Here’s how to ensure your contact lenses have the smallest environmental impact.

Contact lens environmental impact

Contact lenses are primarily made from hydrogel or silicone hydrogel, both of which are non-biodegradable materials. This means that they can take many years to decompose, contributing to landfill waste. These raw materials used in manufacturing contact lenses are derived from finite resources, contributing to resource depletion over time.

Photo courtesy Lensabl

They can also contribute to microplastic pollution. When flushed down the toilet or washed down the sink, contact lenses can fragment into smaller pieces, creating microplastics. These minute particles pose risks to marine life and can enter the food chain, ultimately affecting human health as well.

Manufacturing contact lenses involves the use of chemicals that could be hazardous to the environment. The manufacturing phase can thus produce waste and emissions that are harmful if not properly managed.

How to properly recycle or dispose of contact lenses

Lenses should be cleaned and maintained properly so that they can be used for longer periods. They should also be disposed of properly so that they don’t end up in the oceans.

First, let’s consider what not to do. Don’t flush them, and don’t put them in the trash. Instead, put them aside in a special container, so that they can be recycled. You might find that your local optician provides the service for you. 

While traditional curbside recycling programs generally do not accept contact lenses, some specialized recycling initiatives have emerged to address this issue. These programs aim to recycle not only the lenses themselves but also the blister packs and aluminum foil packaging they come in.

Specialized recycling means that lenses are grouped together and that no one has to do the job of separating them from plastic bottles, cardboard, glass, and non-recyclable material. This helps to ensure that the recycling actually happens.

Photo courtesy Karly Jones

Some contact lens manufacturers offer recycling programs for their products. These often involve collecting used lenses and packaging materials, which are then sent back to the manufacturer for proper disposal or recycling. Check your provider’s website. Optical retailers sometimes partner with lens manufacturers to serve as collection points. Customers can drop off their used lenses and packaging at these locations.

Third-party operators like TerraCycle offer specialized recycling services that include collection programs for contact lenses and their packaging. It works with leading contact lens producer Bausch + Lomb, for example. After collecting sufficient material, these are then recycled into new products like plastic lumber or garden furniture. Some local communities have established their own recycling initiatives, encouraging residents to collect and return their used contact lenses for proper recycling. Check with your local community recycling facilities to see if they can point you to a local effort.

Manufacturers’ role in sustainability

Of course, the burden shouldn’t just be placed on the shoulders of the consumer. Manufacturers also have a role to play in limiting the damage.

Monthly lenses involve less actual material, which potentially makes them the smarter choice when it comes to environmental damage. You’ll need to factor in the cost of the cleaning solution. Many manufacturers are shipping their lenses in special packs, which use less material. As ever, if you’re concerned about environmental impact, it’s a good idea to do your research and then spend your money with the companies that share your values and concerns.

You might also think about the cost of shipping the lenses to your front door. The more lenses you receive in one go, the more efficient you’ll be when it comes to emissions. Bear in mind, however, that the modern logistics industry has many ways of consolidating orders and reducing waste, so you shouldn’t feel guilty about having your lenses arrive more regularly.

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