Proper disposal of contact lenses, packaging and related care products has long been a subject of discussion.1-4 To some extent, it remains a personal decision whether or not to recommend and/or offer patients a recycling option. Does it really matter if lenses end up in the landfill or flushed down the toilet?
On one hand, it’s about the environment, and most should be concerned about what we’re doing to our environment even though the impact has been reported to be negligible.2 On the other hand, is there significant waste or consequences to alternatives (flushing or disposing in the waste basket) to recycling lenses and packaging?
Full-time daily disposable lens wear generates 27% more waste annually than full-time reusable lens wear.4 Contacts don’t break down in septic tanks or sewer systems. Researchers from Arizona State University found that flushing lenses down the sink or toilet may result in them ending in wastewater treatment plants, which reduces them to microplastic fragments.3 On a national basis, the researchers reported, that would amount to 1.8 billion to 3.36 billion lenses being flushed every year. That translates into 20 to 23 metric tons of plastic trash winding up in our wastewater each year.3
“Flushing contact lenses is particularly concerning because their size and flexibility allow them to slip through filters meant to keep nonbiological waste out of wastewater treatment plants,” the researchers noted.1,3,4
Out With the Trash
Mixing your lenses and packaging with “trash” is not a better option than flushing. Overall, an eco-friendly disposal of lenses is not as simple as tossing them into a recycling bin.1 Even if you think you’re recycling properly, most facilities typically can’t properly handle contact lens and packaging processing due to their size. Unfortunately, they are often diverted to the landfill, which may take up to 500 years to decompose and potentially causing pollutants to leak into the soil and water.1,4
For the eye care providers who might appear to be less environmentally friendly by not recommending or providing a recycling program, citing data that shows that daily disposable lenses and packaging account for less than 0.5% of our daily “trash” might help you feel less guilty.2
For providers who have not considered recycling as an option, Bausch & Lomb teamed up with TerraCycle, a handler of hard-to-recycle waste to create the One by One Recycling Program. This program is designed to recycle contact lenses, blister packs and blister-pack foil. Once patients have collected their old contacts, blister packs and foil, they can either take the waste to a local eye doctor’s office participating in the recycling program, or they can ship directly to TerraCycle by placing waste in a sealed cardboard box.1
As of April 2019, the program had diverted more than 9.2 million used contacts, blister packs and foil from waterways, landfills and traditional recycling facilities. Altogether, those weighed nearly 28 tons.1,5
The program accepts used contact lenses and other contact-lens recyclables from any manufacturer. Of note, TerraCycle has a partnership with Johnson & Johnson Vision in the United Kingdom and a partnership with CooperVision in Sweden.6,7
I appreciate the various opinions on how much of a concern not recycling lenses and packaging poses to you, your patients and the environment. Your practice must weigh the pros and cons in order to decide whether to participate in such a program. But I say, why not? It’s going at least have some lasting impact on the environment. Today, more than 5,500 optometry practices have enrolled in the One by One Recycling Program. To register and learn more about this program, visit www.bauschrecycles.com. I think I’m long overdue in presenting this program.
1. Egan J. Don’t flush contact lenses. recycle them. www.allaboutvision.com/contact-lenses/recycle. August 2019. Accessed December 13, 2021.
2. Morgan SL, Morgan PB, Efron N. Environmental impact of three replacement modalities of soft contact lens wear. Cont Lens Anterior Eye. 2003;26(1):43-6.
3. Rolsky C, Kelkar VP, Halden RU. Nationwide mass inventory and degradation assessment of plastic contact lenses in US wastewater, Environ Sci Technol. 2020;54(19):12102-8.
4. Smith SL, Osborn GN, Silley A, et al. An investigation into disposal and recycling options for daily disposable and monthly replacement soft contact lens modalities. Cont Lens Anterior Eye. 2021;43(3):101435.
5. Bausch + Lomb One by One Recycling Problem. Terra Cycle. www.terracycle.com/en-us/brigades/bauschrecycles. Accessed December 13, 2021.
6. Sustainability at Acuvue. a world worth seeing. Johnson & Johnson Vision. www.jnjvisionpro.com/about/sustainability. Accessed December 13, 2021.
7. CooperVision launches soft contact lens recycling program for all brands in Sweden. CooperVision. coopervision.com/our-company/news-center/press-release/coopervision-launches-soft-contact-lens-recycling-program-all August 26, 2019. Accesed December 13, 2021.