What are the environmental impacts of contact lenses?

24 February 2023

Author: Kate Green

environmental effects contact lenses

How many people wear contact lenses?


Over 4 million people in Britain wear contact lenses and, with some people wearing a new disposable pair each day, the total number of contact lenses used here each year is huge. In the US, 14 billion contact lenses are thrown away each year, and 2.6 billion of these enter the water system annually. Based on these US estimates, it’s possible that people in the UK get through almost 300 million contact lenses each year. If you wear contact lenses, how you dispose of them is especially important, which we’ll cover in a bit more depth later. When we consider what contact lenses are actually made of, realise it’s plastic, and then discover that an estimated 21% of all lenses end up in the water system, it’s clear to see what kind of problems arise from this vision correction solution.


Although nearly everyone makes an effort to reuse plastic bags where possible and to recycle other household items, this attitude doesn’t always seem to extend to contact lens use. In fact, most people who wear contacts use daily disposable contact lenses, meaning that each person contributes potentially up to 365 pairs to our landfill sites and water system each year. Other types of contact lenses don’t need to be changed daily and can instead last up to a month before needing to be changed. You can speak to your optician about these lenses if you would like to reduce your reliance on daily plastic lenses. However, to reduce your plastic use impact further still, options such as laser eye surgery can allow you to live life free from contact lenses entirely.


Contact lenses polluting our water systems


We mentioned that one-fifth of people put their contact lenses down the sink or toilet, allowing the plastic to enter our water systems. Contact lenses are almost small enough to be microplastics (anything under 5mm is counted as a microplastic), so they don’t need to break down much in order to become tiny pieces of plastic which can easily enter everything from our water system, then soil, then animals, working its way through the food chain.


In fact, contact lenses’ effect on our water system and food chains has been found to be worse than other microplastics, due to the material of the contact lenses themselves. By their very nature, contacts are designed to be absorbent in order to keep your eyes as hydrated as possible. However, this means that they absorb any toxins and pesticides in the water and sewer systems, effectively carrying them to new locations and environments where they wouldn’t normally be used. A team of researchers from Arizona State University looked at how contact lenses contribute to pollution in our soil and waterways. They learned that, in wastewater treatment tanks, it takes 172 hours for contact lenses to break down and deteriorate, giving them plenty of time to travel to other crucial parts of the water system, for example specially designated areas for use on farmland.


Worryingly, microplastics have been detected in humans and even in newborn babies, and this problem will likely only worsen as more plastics, including contact lenses, enter our water systems. Microplastics are then digested by animals as they enter soil and crops, or are mistaken for food by fish and other sea creatures, working its way up to humans through the food chain. Flicking your contact lenses into the sink when you’ve finished with them may seem like nothing in the moment, but it actually contributes to a huge problem on a much wider scale.


How can you dispose of your contact lenses responsibly?


Knowing the impacts of putting your old contact lenses down the sink or toilet is driving more people to seek alternative, more environmentally friendly method of disposing of contact lenses. The bin is always better than the plughole, but 77% of people actually want to recycle their contact lenses properly, although aren’t sure how to do so.


There are a number of recycling schemes which mean you can responsibly dispose of your contact lenses and the associated packaging, preventing them from ending up in the water system or landfill sites. One of these is the ACUVUE Contact Lens Recycle Programme, launched by Johnson and Johnson. This is the UK’s first nationwide recycling scheme to help consumers recycle not just the lens itself, but the plastic and foil packaging they come in. And, best of all, the scheme is completely free of charge, regardless of the brand of contact lenses you use. Read more about the scheme here.


How can you live life without contact lenses?


One of the simplest ways to ditch your contact lenses completely is to have vision correction surgery. Chances are, if you wear contact lenses regularly, it’s because you don’t like the look of your glasses, or they just aren’t practical when it comes to activities like exercise or for your work. If this is the case, you could consider our range of vision correction surgeries available at Ultralase:


Call us on 0800 988 6390 or email enquiries@ultralase.com to chat to one of our Customer Advisors. Leave your glasses and contact lenses behind for good, and reduce your impact on the environment at the same time.


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