Contact lenses contribute to microplastic pollution

Gwen Vasquez
August 23, 2018

Some scientists at Arizona State University asked that question and found that a lot of them are going down the sink or getting flushed down the toilet - adding to the problem of microplastic pollution.

Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Institute's Center for Environmental Health Engineering at ASU, said: "A desirable long-term outcome would be to create lenses from polymers that are fine-tuned to be inert during use but labile and degradable when escaping into the environment". They discovered that the plastics that contacts are made from doesn't break down quickly, but the lenses themselves do have a habit of breaking into smaller chunks, multiplying the potential damage each lens can cause.

The researchers are presenting their results today (Monday 20th August) at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Boston, Mass.

The scientific team found only one contact lens manufacturer whose packaging advised people how to dispose of them properly.

Lenses disposed of in this way end up in wastewater treatment plants - between 6 to 10 metric tons of plastic lenses suffer this fate each year in the US alone, the team estimates. If you're tossing your disposable contacts in your toilet bowl, it might not be long before they come back to haunt you.

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Lenses that are washed down the drain ultimately end up in wastewater treatment plants. The study is segmented by Application/end users Children, Adults, The Elderly and Others, products type like Rigid Toric Contact Lenses, Soft Toric Contact Lenses and Geographies like North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Africa, Central America and Rest of the World. To help address their fate during treatment, the researchers exposed five polymers found in many manufacturers' contact lenses to anaerobic and aerobic microorganisms present at wastewater treatment plants for varying times and performed Raman spectroscopy to analyze them.

A new report reveals that a shocking amount of contact lens users - almost 20 percent - dispose of those little plastic circles in a terribly irresponsible way, by flushing them down the toilet or the drain of the sink. Since plastic isn't digestible, however, these microplastics have a severe effect on the animals' digestive systems. "This a pretty large number, considering roughly 45 million people in the USA alone wear contact lenses". The treatment plants "fragment them into microplastics, which accumulate in sewage sludge". "This leads to smaller plastic particles which would ultimately lead to the formation of microplastics". Since oceans support complex food chains, microplastics can pass from the small fry to larger fish and eventually end up on your plate (or in your glass).

They found 15-20% of US users simply flick these fiddly lenses down the drain via the bathroom sink or toilet.

Contact lens companies often provide no package instructions about where to dispose of lenses, the ASU researchers note.

The American Optometric Association recommends that patients recycle their contact lenses (and contact cases, boxes and solution) if they live in an area that allows for it.

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