When you think of plastic pollution, you probably imagine discarded straws. And bottles of water. And bags. Some people also focus on something smaller – tiny items that millions of us use every day. Contact lenses, when disposed of improperly, create contaminating microplastics.
To help prevent microplastic pollution, responsible disposal is important. A free program is in place to help you recycle your used contacts.
Do not rinse used contacts
That’s the advice of a trio of scientists from Arizona State University. They teamed up to study the effects of contact lenses washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet.
The study revealed that:
- 15-20% of contact lens wearers throw the lenses down the sink or toilet.
- With approximately 45 million people in the United States wearing contacts, approximately 1.8 to 3.36 billion lenses are rinsed annually.
- In wastewater treatment plants, the contacts are probably too small to be filtered and disposed of.
“The study showed that sewage plants break them down into microplastics, which accumulate in the sewage sludge. For about two pounds of sewage sludge, you can usually find a pair of contact lenses,” according to a article about the project on the Arizona State University website. Because sewage sludge is regularly deposited on land for soil conditioning, these microplastics have a short pathway to pollute our ecosystems.
Disposing of used lenses in household trash is preferable to rinsing, says Charles Rolsky, who holds a Ph.D. candidate who worked on the research project. But it’s even better to recycle them.
ONE by ONE Recycling Program
Bausch & Lomb, which sells contact lenses, has teamed up with TerraCyclewhich recycles objects that are difficult to recycle, to launch the Bausch + Lomb ONE by ONE Recycling Program. The recycling initiative accepts used glasses of all brands. It also accepts empty blister packs and aluminum foil, which most curbside recycling programs aren’t equipped to handle.
Since its creation in 2016, ONE by ONE has collected more than 41 million units of used contact lenses, protective films and blister packs for recycling.
“Once collected, the contact lenses and blisters are cleaned and separated by type of material,” explains TerraCycle. “Materials are recycled into raw formats that manufacturers use to make new products.”
Contact Lens Recycling Information
You can drop off your used lenses, blister packs and top sheets at participating optical offices. Use TerraCycle interactive map to find places near you. For the most energy-efficient approach, drop off these items when you see your eye care professional or at a participating eye care office in your area. If your eye care professional is not yet a point of contact, suggest register on TerraCycle.
To reduce packaging and shipping waste, this program is available by drop-off only. Deposits are “overall more environmentally friendly because they save packaging,” according to a Bausch & Lomb representative. When dropping off your contact lenses and blister packs, do not include cardboard or cardboard packaging. You can usually include these materials with your other clean household paper recycling.
These links will help you get started:
Originally published on January 16, 2020, this article was updated in June 2023.