We are all involved in recycling - card, paper, aluminium cans, plastics (where possible) etc but what do we do about our contact lenses?
Disposable contact lenses are now the most popular type of lenses since their introduction in 1987 and with over 3 million wearers in the UK alone, that’s a lot of potential waste.
Disposable lenses are typically made of silicone-hydrogel, which, like most plastics, does not biodegrade, which makes then unsuitable for compost or recycling. But it’s not all bad news many parts of your contact lens supply are recyclable.
Contact lenses come in various parts
*The delivery box - if like an increasing number of contact lens wearers you buy your contact lenses online
*The contact lens outer box
*The contact Lens blister
*The contact lens
As you can imagine not all of these parts can be recycled the same way, let’s address them individually.
The Delivery box
Many contact lens companies and opticians deliver contact lenses direct to your door, in almost all cases the delivery box is recyclable, simply flatten the delivery box and put it in the recycle container.
Contact lens outer box
Almost all contact lenses have an outer protective box, this has two purposes, it is a great advertising tool reminding you what lenses you are wearing, their Power, Base Curve and Diameter, plus they keep your lenses together whether for 1, 3 or 6 months.
These outer boxes are easy to recycle, just like the delivery box, when you have finished your lenses simply flatten the box and put it in the recycling bin.
Contact lens blister
These hold the lenses themselves and are not so simple, as you are probably aware they consist of two parts, the foil “lid” and the plastic container.
The foil lid, unfortunately, is not currently recyclable, so this part has to be placed in your general waste bin.
If you look very closely at the plastic blister you will see the recycle logo with pp05 or pp5 this means the plastic container is made of Polypropylene (PP) which is one of the safer kinds of plastics. It is increasingly getting acceptable in curbside recycling programmes. If in doubt check with your local recyclers.
For US and Australian contact lens wearers Bausch and Lomb and TerraCycle run the One by One recycling programme, whereby you can send Bausch and Lomb any brand of contact lens blisters free of charge and they will recycle them for you.
Scientists are currently working on a soy-based biodegradable contact lens, but that technology is still a few years away. In the meantime, we are stuck with the silicone/hydrogel lenses, these are currently not recyclable.
In an effort to reduce plastic pollution, researchers in the US have been investigating the final journey made by disposable contact lenses.The study found that approximately 15-20 percent of contact lens wearers in the US dispose of their contact lenses down the sink or toilet.
Researchers tested 11 types of contact lenses and found that while some of the intact lenses are trapped by filters in sewage treatment plants, lenses can fragment into tiny particles which slip through the filters, and contribute to the microplastics already floating around in the world’s oceans.
Disposable contact lenses should be disposed of in the general waste bin and not down the toilet or sink.
So are contact lenses recyclable?
Yes and No.
You can definitely recycle much of the contact lens packaging but unfortunately not the lenses themselves.
What can you do to reduce contact lens waste?
It’s been said you could switch to two weekly or monthly lenses, however, when researchers at Johnson and Johnson looked at daily disposables, which don't require cleaning, and monthly disposables, which are cleaned and stored at night requiring, solution bottles and storage cases they found that A pair of daily disposable contact lenses worn 365 days per year produces 1kg of waste annually, comparatively, reusable contact lenses plus care solutions produced 0.84kg of packaging waste yearly. So not a huge difference.
Switching to glasses does not necessarily save the environment with some studies suggesting the raw material in a pair of glasses can be equivalent to 4 years worth of daily disposable lenses,however on average people wear glasses for over 2 years before replacing them. If you are looking at switching to glasses look out for environmentally friendly companies such as greeneyewear who use environmentally friendly acetates in their frames.
Practical ways to reduce the impact of your contact lenses on the environment
*DO Recycle the cardboard - flatten boxes and place in recycle bin
*DO Recycle the plastic - collect your plastic blisters in a jar in the bathroom ad recycle in your plastic recycle bin
*DO Dispose of the foil lid in general waste
*DO Dispose of contact lenses in the general waste
*DON’T Dispose of old contact lenses down the toilet or drain
Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 3 Nov 2018, Last modified: 16 Feb 2020