Microplastics, plastic pollution, single use plastics - they're everywhere - both literally and metaphorically, every day there are news stories on the damage to our planet caused by plastic.
There’s one source of plastic waste which is having a hugely detrimental effect on our environment - contact lenses, and they’re set to become the latest pariah in a long list of plastic pollution.
We’ve all watched Blue Planet and been shocked by the catastrophic damage caused by plastic pollution and we all have a part to play in reducing our reliance on single-use plastics.
The size and scale of the issue is, in a word – gargantuan.
Millions and millions of people have been wearing contact lenses for decades and it’s only now that we are beginning to understand the harmful effects of single-use plastics, like contact lenses, on our environment.
It's estimated 125 million people around the world rely on contact lenses for their vision correction, in the UK it's 4.2 million, but where do they dispose of their used contact lenses and their packaging?
Research from Optical Express found that 97% of contact lens wearers were damaging the environment as a result of disposing of these single use plastics incorrectly, either in the bin or flushing lenses down the sink or loo.
What's the issue with disposing of used contact lenses in the bin or flushing contact lenses down the loo?
Put simply, dispose of the used contact lenses and their packaging in the bin and they can take up to 500 years to decompose in landfill, leaking pollutants into the soil and water and entering into the food chain.
Flush them down the sink or loo and they end up in the sewage system where they break down into tiny fragments – microplastics – which then contaminate our water ways causing marine pollution.
People may think that because contact lenses are small that this type of pollution doesn’t matter, but it absolutely does, and part of this is down to the number of lenses being used - 780 million plastic contact lenses used by UK wearers alone, with 750 million plastic lenses being flushed down the drain or ending up in landfill every year.
As climate activist Greta Thunberg said “Listen to the scientists!”
In 2018, Professor Rolf Halden and Charles Rolsky from Arizona State University  published a research paper on contact lens plastic pollution, the first of its kind in the world.
Rolsky said “We found that 15 to 20 percent of contact lens wearers are flushing the lenses down the sink or toilet," he said. “This is a pretty large number, considering roughly 45 million people in the U.S. alone wear contact lenses, amounting to 1.8–3.36 billion lenses flushed per year, or about 20–23 metric tons of wastewater-borne plastics annually."
And here in the UK, the research findings specifically on microplastics are also a concern. Dr Dannielle Green, Director of the Applied Ecology Research Group at Anglia Ruskin University said "I have been researching the environmental impact of plastic and microplastics for the past seven years and have found that even biodegradable plastics can have the same effects as non-biodegradable ones. When larger items break down, they can persist as microplastics and can affect plants and animals in natural habitats. We found that plant growth on land and algae growth in aquatic habitats can be reduced by the presence of microplastics, this is vitally important ecologically as plants and algae are the base of the food web. When animals such as worms, crabs and oysters eat microplastics it can cause them to lose weight, reproduce less and generally be less healthy. We need to prevent plastic from entering the environment. Used contact lenses and their packaging should be disposed of responsibly and recycled. Used contact lenses should never be flushed down the drain."
We must take heed of the science and all play our part for the environment for today and for our future generations. Recycling as we know, only makes up a tiny percentage of the war on plastic and there are other more sustainable alternatives for your vision correction.
If you do choose to wear contact lenses, please dispose of them responsibly by recycling at more than 120 Optical Express clinics throughout the UK and Ireland.
And discuss sustainable choices for your vision correction with our teams.
1. Johnson & Johnson Contact Lens Market Statistics
Approximately 125 million people worldwide wear contact lenses to correct common vision problems.
2. Arizona State University
American nationwide study that showing consumers, by discarding used lenses down the drain, may be unknowingly contributing to plastic pollution.Book a Consultation