Your Daily Contacts Have A Bigger Environmental Impact Than You Think, This Study Says

by Carolyn de Lorenzo

Many of us rely on contact lenses to correct our vision sans the trouble of wearing glasses, and may not think twice about how we toss them out at the end of the day. But according to a recent press release, your daily contact lens use might have a bigger environmental impact than you think — so it’s important to know how to dispose of them safely. Arizona State University researchers convening at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) are sharing evidence that tossing our contact lenses down the drain when we’re done with them is contributing to environmental pollution in some surprising ways.

According to Scientific American, Americans flush up to 2.9 billion contact lenses down the drain every year. Scientific American reports that lead study author and ASU doctoral student Charles Rolsky said that while plenty of research examines the negative effects of single-use plastics like fishing gear, plastic straws, and plastic bags, the effects of microplastics — like those from disposable contact lenses — on our soil and waterways are less well-known. Rolsky was quoted as saying in the recent press release that, in order to better grasp the environmental cost of disposable contact lens use, the research team “began looking into the U.S. market and conducted a survey of contact lens wearers.” The team found that 15 to 20 percent of contact wearers in the United States flush their lenses down the drain or toilet at the end of their use, and the environmental costs are adding up.

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The New York Times reports that, by making their way into the water supply, the tiny lenses are contributing to environmental pollution — so knowing the best way to throw them out is key. The New York Times further reports that, according to a 2015 study, up to 236,000 metric tons of microplastics were found in ocean water. As these plastics pose a potential threat to seawater-grazing animals, coral, and marine life, it’s clear that making consistent efforts to keep them out of our waters is crucial. Scientific American also notes that not only do plastics from contacts end up in our waterways, where they don’t biodegrade effectively, small fragments can also end up in our soil.

Luckily, the solution is pretty simple — if you prefer your contacts to glasses and want to keep wearing them, make sure to toss them in the garbage instead of flushing them down the sink or toilet. The New York Times further notes that while current contact lens packaging doesn’t make specific recommendations as to how to best toss them out, this could change soon. And some manufacturers have also started programs to reuse the plastic and recycle contact lens packaging. According to the press release, the study’s authors hope to see updated labeling on contact lens packaging soon, but in the meantime, just make sure to toss them in the kitchen or bathroom garbage bin — and avoid ditching them down the sink or toilet.