What to Do With Old Contacts

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Contact lenses provided a necessary revolution for those needing vision assistance. Disposable and reusable contacts entered the market to great fanfare; however, solutions for what to do with old contacts are not well publicized. Is it best to throw disposable lenses in the trash? What if your prescription changes and reusables don’t help you much anymore?

And it isn’t just about the lenses—there is the additional question of cases and packaging. Contacts, though they provide convenience and confidence to wearers, produce waste that standard eyeglasses do not. Let’s analyze the current solutions for this problem so everyone wearing contacts can wear them guilt-free and dispose of them responsibly.

The Environmental Impact of Contact Lenses


Contact lenses are made of plastic, often with a mixture of hydrogels. Therefore, they do not biodegrade or dissolve in water, though many believe they naturally decompose. Whereas recycling programs to help curb the waste problem associated with plastic frames for glasses are more commonplace, the same cannot be said for contact lenses.

People usually dispose of contacts by throwing them in the trash, flushing them down the toilet or putting them down sink drains. With this nondescript, careless disposal, they can end up in countless unexpected places. They can break down into microplastics, contaminating waterways and harming wildlife.

Since most disposable contacts are meant for daily or monthly use, this waste adds up to anywhere from six to 10 metric tons of plastic in wastewater from the estimated 45 million people who wear them—a surprising number amid the plastic straw conversation.

Because of their transparency, contacts are challenging for animals to identify among other visual clutter. Since contacts sink, this transparency poses special issues for floor-dwelling ocean creatures. Populations of bottom-feeders—and plenty of aquatic life—consume lenses unknowingly, damaging their populations.

An average of 2.75 billion contact lenses go down the drain, creating problems for water treatment plants on strict timetables to purify contaminants from water. Wastewater treatment plants find that the lenses only begin to degrade in a vat of microorganisms after a lengthy 172-hour soak.

The makeup of contacts more easily breaks down into smaller pieces instead of decomposing. Ideally, bacteria would eat away at the contact lens in a timely fashion, as they can with other contaminants, but this isn’t an option because of the lenses’ material makeup. It doesn’t help that the way manufacturers construct contact lenses makes them soak up water, including any contaminants like pesticides. This compounds negative environmental impact.

The sheer amount of microplastics in wastewater is only compounded by how widespread it is in soil and air, affecting human health by contaminating food consumption and the air we breathe. When microplastics contain other harmful contaminants, our trained habit of flushing contact lenses affects countless species, including ourselves.

Options for Recycling and Donating Contacts


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The primary issue surrounding contact lenses is the research about their environmental impact is new and minimal. Arizona State University released the first study of its kind in 2018. Amid discussions of microplastics and pollution, it also revealed how few resources and little information providers give consumers concerning environmentally friendly disposal methods.

Most municipal recycling plans do not accept lenses in their recycling. More often than not, they will be redirected to a landfill because of their size. However, a few brands are accepting old contacts as part of their recycling programs.

Terracycle and Bausch & Lomb have collaborated to create the ONE by ONE program to recycle used lenses, as well as blister packs and foil covers. Every aspect needs consideration for the total environmental impact of contact lenses to be minimized. Since Arizona State University’s original study, other organizations have started forming and adjusting donation guidelines to assist in curbing this environmental issue. These include:

  • DonateContacts
  • Goodwill
  • LensCrafters
  • Madre’s Helping Hands

You can also talk to your provider for more suggestions. Most take unused contacts from people who recently received LASIK and do not need old prescriptions anymore. Then, nonprofits and providers can redistribute them to individuals who share your prescription. Alternatively, with more programs like the ONE by ONE program, we could see organizations venture into repurposing them into post-consumer products.

If you live in an area where recycling options or access is limited, there are still ways to reduce the environmental impact of contact lenses:

  • Switch to reusable lenses or back to wearing glasses
  • Research to see if LASIK is right for you
  • Purchase lenses in bulk to reduce emissions from shipping
  • Dispose of lenses in the trash—never down drains, toilets or recycling bins
  • Check-in with curbside recycling to see if other aspects of the packaging are recyclable
  • Make calls or start initiatives to raise awareness

Even with these individual actions, significant progress will only occur as people instigate change. Contact wearers can reach out to their eye doctors and ask them what measures can be taken to pressure manufacturers to make more eco-friendly decisions.

Suggest they collaborate with organizations or recycling programs to offer patients a more ethical way to wear lenses. Or, you can ask them to provide fact sheets from the American Optometric Association concerning best disposal practices for patients.

Advancements in the Industry


The conversation starting around 2018 has led to a few leaps concerning awareness and technological developments. In 2019, the United Kingdom introduced its first contact lens recycling program, led by Johnson & Johnson Vision. It’s a popular move, since 77% of British wearers have said they would recycle lenses if they could.

Other companies, such as CooperVision and EssilorLuxottica, are working to make lenses more sustainable in different ways by going carbon-neutral and instilling business values to drive green initiatives like saving water. When prominent players in the ophthalmic industry begin announcing these changes, more will follow suit as pressure ramps from environmental advocates.

Following in CooperVision’s footsteps, more may seek to obtain environmental certifications like LEED and use renewable energy and sustainable packaging options for their contact products. Revising the contact lens manufacturing process from the start is essential, but so is eliminating already-created waste from years of improper disposal.

The College of Optometrists also released a report accentuating what the sector needs to do to assist with climate change. They noted contact packaging is often void of any visual hints as to whether it’s recyclable or not. This leaves consumers questioning. Therefore, manufacturers should standardize contact lens packaging to include labels for best recycling practices.

Another way contact lenses are advancing in the sustainability field is by creating vegan, cruelty-free alternatives to lenses and solutions. This reduces environmental impact by eliminating the need to test products on animals. Companies like Clear Conscience and Daysoft provide lens wearers some relief in this respect.

In the last several years, there have also been indications that soy-based contact lenses are in development, but there is little update regarding it. There’s no other mention of other materials being tested for more eco-friendly contact lenses.

Proper Disposal of Contacts


Conversations surrounding ethical consumption are becoming more prevalent as climate conversations increase in intensity. Every industry and every product is under the spotlight when it comes to environmental responsibility, including contact lenses. Old contacts, used or not, give us a lot of things to consider regarding environmental impact, including the ability to repurpose or recycle them, sustainable packaging and educational awareness for consumers.

Though they are world-changing, their convenience cannot supersede environmental impact. Advancements will continue as awareness increases, creating a greener future for contact wearers.

Feature image: Nataliya Vaitkevich; Image 1: Pavel Danilyuk

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