Flushed contact lenses are big source of microplastic pollution

Gwen Vasquez
August 23, 2018

If you take the 14-billion contact lenses used in the US every year, the study estimates that up to 50,000 pounds of plastic get flushed or otherwise go down the drain.

"What we find is that there are billions of lenses ending up in United States wastewater every year". That result suggests that a significant number of lenses are ending up in waste-water treatment plants - a conclusion they confirmed after visiting treatment plants and spying lenses in the water.

Recent research was presented by authors from Arizona State University, at the meeting for the American Chemical Society in Boston.

The lenses then break down into "smaller plastic particles" called microplastics and end up in our wastewater treatment plants.

Not many people care about what happens after they flush their contact lenses down the toilet or toss them out in a sink basin? They become incorporated into sewage sludge that is spread on fields to fertilize the soil.

Halden says contacts that sink could pose a threat to aquatic life, especially bottom-feeding fish that might mistake microplastics for food and eat the indigestible material.

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"Or about 20-23 metric tons of wastewater-borne plastics annually", he said.

The researchers estimate that the tendency of USA consumers to dispose of contact lenses by putting them down the drain adds six to 10 metric tons of plastic to our wastewater each year.

But even people who describe themselves as environmentally conscious admitted flushing their lenses, he noted. This program accepts disposable contacts from any brand, so you can do your part to keep the earth clear of microplastics and enjoy the convenience of contact lenses.

Varyb Kelkar, Rolf Ulrich Halden, and Charles Rolsky hope more research can be done to properly rid the world of contact lens waste.

"This might have been a different experiment had there been labeling on a lot of these boxes sort of specifying "maybe dispose of these with solid waste and please avoid having them go down a drain"; maybe it would be a different story", he said. Due to their size and packaging materials, recycling facilities typically can not handle contact lens processing, so they are diverted to landfills.

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