Here's How Your Contact Lenses May Be Polluting the Ocean

Gladys Abbott
August 21, 2018

Researchers from Arizona State University conducted a study that delved into the proper disposal of contact lenses, and as it turns out, users aren't very good at dealing with lenses once they're done using them.

The study, presented at an American Chemical Society meeting in Boston, was inspired by personal experience.

"Good for the contact lens wearer during use, not so good when the things get out into the environment". But given the estimated 45 million wearers of contact lenses in the USA alone, Halden and postdoctoral student Charlie Rolsky got to thinking: how many millions of people are disposing of these plastics improperly?

Wastewater treatment facilities in the USA simply don't do a good enough job of filtering out the tons of contact lenses that are disposed of through the sewer system, according to new research presented Sunday at the American Chemical Society's meeting in Boston. First, the team surveyed 139 people to determine how contact lenses end up in wastewater.

"If earthworms consume the soil and birds feed on it, then you could see that plastic make the same journey as is done by plastics debris in oceans, they are incorporated by biota that are also part of the human food chain", said Prof Halden.

The researchers broke the study into three core parts.

The team estimates up to 10 metric tons of plastic lenses end up in wastewater in the USA alone each year. The researchers interviewed workers at such facilities, who confirmed that they had spotted lenses in the waste.

A new round of research reveals that discarded contact lenses are popping up in lots of unexpected places, including major water sources. They even come in tiny packets of saline solution.

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"These are medical devices - you would not expect them to be super-biodegradable", environmental engineer Rolf Halden told The New York Times. "Once these lenses dry, they become incredibly brittle and will very likely shatter into very small particles".

And there were small changes in the bonds of the plastic polymers after exposure to the microbes. Well, now contact lens manufacturers don't include any information on the packaging about how to dispose of the used product. Alternatively, Bausch & Lomb offers a recycling program for any brand of contact lenses and packaging.

Throwing Away Your Contact Lenses?

The researchers want manufacturers to provide information on the label, informing people how to properly dispose of their contacts.

Contacts tend to be denser than water, which means they sink, and this could ultimately pose a threat to aquatic life, especially bottom feeders that may ingest the contacts, researchers said.

Earlier research on the individual waste from an average person's disposable contact lenses in the United Kingdom looked more broadly at the environmental footprint of contacts and compared it to waste from soda cans, suggesting that the lens-related waste is relatively small, per person-roughly equivalent to the disposal of 15 cans of Coca Cola per year.

"Ultimately, we hope that manufacturers will conduct more research on how the lenses impact aquatic life and how fast the lenses degrade in a marine environment".

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