The Environmental Issue with Contact Lenses No One Is Talking About

Help your eyesight and help the environment by not flushing contact lenses down the toilet.

If you wear contacts, you know where this is going. After a long day of working and having a bit of downtime in the evening, it’s time to remove your contact lenses and either place it back into the appropriate storage container or dispose of it accordingly. You might think throwing the used contact lenses away in the garbage is the most practical thing to do, however, some people tend to flush contact lenses away in the toilet or wash it down the sink. If you’re in either category, it’s time to stop. Here are 20 tiny everyday changes you can make to help save the environment.

First of all, what are contact lenses made out of?

Not all contact lenses are made equal. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), contact lenses can fall into two categories: soft and rigid gas permeable (RGP). Soft contact lenses are made out of a specific kind of plastic called hydrophilic plastics that are better at absorbing water. You’ve probably experienced the discomfort of wearing a contact lens that has dried out. If the hydrophilic plastics remain wet, then the contact lenses will continue to be soft. If you wear your contact lenses for a longer, extended period of time, then the soft contact lenses contain hydrophilic plastics as well as silicone hydrogel which helps your eyes receive more oxygen and can be more comfortable to wear. Due to the hardy and durable nature of rigid gas permeable lenses, they tend to last longer than soft contact lenses. However, this kind of lens is made out of acrylate, silicone, and fluorine, so it’s a bit more hard or rigid, hence the name. This is the eye condition 123 million Americans don’t know they have.

What do contact lenses have to do with the environment?

If you think it’s not a big deal to throw away a pair of contact lenses down the drain, think again. In research presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, a study by Rolf Halden, a professor and director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, found that in the United States alone, about 15 to 20 percent of people who wear contact lenses choose to discard the lenses in the sink or toilet. While it may seem like a low number percentage-wise, it’s actually a lot larger than you may think since in the United States about 45 million people wear contact lenses. Those lenses that are flushed down the toilet and washed down the sink end up in wastewater treatment plants, resulting in about six to ten metric tons of plastic lenses each year in the United States. For context, here’s how long it takes for plastic bottles to break down in the ocean.

“When the plastic loses some of its structural strength, it will break down physically. This leads to smaller plastic particles which would ultimately lead to the formation of microplastics,” Varun Kelkar, a member of the team, said in a press release from the American Chemical Society. “Aquatic organisms can mistake microplastics for food and since plastics are indigestible, this dramatically affects the marine animals’ digestive system. These animals are part of a long food chain. Some eventually find their way to the human food supply, which could lead to unwanted human exposures to plastic contaminants and pollutants that stick to the surfaces of the plastics.” Here are 50 facts that will make you stop using plastic.

What are microplastics and how bad is it for the environment?

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Plastic can come in all shapes and sizes, but according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, microplastics are about the same size as a sesame seed or less than five millimeters in length. Microplastics have already been found in numerous marine mammals and in the skies due to flying insects, so it was only a matter of time until microplastics wound up in the human body and subsequently in human stool. You may know that plastic is bad for the environment, but you should also know that it’s easier than you think to give up using plastic in everyday life. Here’s how one woman became plastic-free and what she uses instead.

How you can help the environment

If you shouldn’t flush contact lenses away in your toilet or sink, and you shouldn’t throw it away in the garbage, then how do you properly dispose of contact lenses? Fortunately, you’re able to recycle your contact lenses and most packages. Contact your local eye doctor and see if they’re participating in a recycling program for your contact lenses. If you’re tired of wearing contacts, it’s not such a bad thing to switch over to glasses. After all, this is the real reason people with glasses look smart.

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Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com