What’s a Girl to Do About Recycling Disposable Contacts?

Disposable contact lenses can (and should) be recycled and not flushed down the toilet.

You know how you have those moments in life where you’re like, “Wait. This is a thing?! How did I not know about it!

That’s how I felt this morning when I accidentally saw a video about contact lenses turning into microplastics when they aren’t recycled.

I was like, “Back up the train. You can recycle disposable CONTACTS!”

Two things:

1. I’m a disposable contact wearer for several reasons. I know some zero waste champions have managed to stop using them (ah-mazing!) – eliminating the plastic blister packs and the contacts – but that’s not where I am in my life. I’m not alone. Over 45 million people in the United States alone wear contacts – many of which choose disposable (although I couldn’t find a stat on how exactly how many).

2. I happen to be passionate about microplastics. They are destroying the planet and we are creating billions of them. A 2015 study reported  93,000 to 236,000 metric tons of microplastic in the ocean. Read more on them here.

Back to the contacts – that you can recycle (slaps forehead).

It turns out the contacts don’t break down well in the water purification systems we have. They get into the water systems when people (like me!) mindlessly wash them down the drain or flush them down the toilet.

Yes, moment of total honesty. Sometimes I throw my contacts in the garbage can, but sometimes I’ll wash them down the sink. I’m not alone. A study looking at what happens to contact lenses during the water treatment process found that 20% of people who wear disposable contacts wash them down the sink or flush them down the toilet. Overall, the study estimated that at least 22 metric tons of contact lenses could be flushed in the United States every year.

I feel totally dumb for missing the fact that I was flushing plastic down the drain, but it never occurred to me. Anyone else? Anyone?

Contacts are problematic because they sink in water. When the study looked at 13 brands of contact lenses it showed they all would sink, implying they would also sink in wastewater treatment plants and be hard to eliminate. They are soft and can fold and squish through filters. Plus, when the study exposed them to bacteria meant to biodegrade contaminants in water during treatment, the contacts showed almost no changes.

You end up with fractured, micro leftovers that damage the environment.

 Image: Charles Rolsky via NY Times

Image: Charles Rolsky via NY Times

So what’s a girl to do?

It turns out contacts can be recycled, and it is easy to do it thanks to a new contact recycling initiative by Bauch + Lomb in partnership with TerraCycle called One by One. You collect your blister packs, top foil, and contacts in a small cardboard box and when it’s full you can mail it back simply by requesting a free mailing label

Easy!

Seriously, you can be having the craziest day ever without time for any conscious, sustainable choices and then “Voila!” at the end of the day you manage to throw your contacts into a recycling box and you’re a planet-helping winner for the day.

It doesn’t get easier than that to make a small difference.

Share this with any contact wearers you know! Or mention it to you optometrist. I think it would be amazing if they started telling everyone about the recycling opportunity every time they picked up a box of contacts. And, hopefully in the near future contact manufacturers will add safe disposal information to the boxes as well. 


Related: 

Plastics in general are a problem to our health and the planet. We've rounded up hundreds of simple changes in our section on going plastic free.

 Bees Wrap is a great alternative to plastic wrap! 

Bees Wrap is a great alternative to plastic wrap!