Larraine Roulston February’21

Millions of Contact Lenses Pollute Our Water

By Larraine Roulston

It is common knowledge that when eyeglasses need to be replaced, the used pair can be donated to those in need by depositing them at an optometrist’s office or in similar participating retail collection boxes. Disposal awareness, unfortunately, is not as clear for contact lenses. Eye care specialists advise patients to place disposable lenses in the trash; however, they rarely offer recycling services or advise against flushing them away.

Americans wear the soft plastic disposable discs, many of which are designed for single daily use. To trace the end-life of lenses, Arizona State University Ph.D. student Charles Rolsky and researchers Varun Kelkar and Rolf Ulrich Halden revealed that millions of contact lenses end up in our water systems.

Municipal sewage plant workers, who were interviewed by the research team, confirmed that they have observed lenses in wastewater. With this information, a study began to test the effects. After dropping lenses in liquids of varying densities, the researchers found that the lenses inevitably sank to the bottom, thus making them dangerous for bottom feeding fish that ingest these small plastic fragments. Other studies have shown that plastics absorb chemicals and can eventually find their way into our food chain. Regarding the trio’s local survey, Rolsky stated, “We found that 15 to 20 percent of contact wearers are flushing the lenses down the sink or toilet.” The Arizona team estimates that between 6 and 10 metric tons of plastic lenses are entering U.S. wastewater plants annually. Lenses are adding to the micro-plastic problem found in oceans, lakes, and commercially bottled water. When sewage sludge contacts land, these small particles enter the soil. The team’s results were presented at an annual meeting of the American Chemistry Society.

Rolsky would like to see contact lens manufacturers provide labelling on every package, stating that disposable lenses should be included with regular trash if recycling is not available and explaining what NOT to do. The problem of the improper disposal of contact lenses can be avoided easily with sufficient advertising, package labelling, and an optometrist’s instructions. Aditionally, optical lens companies can avail themselves of free recycling programs by partnering with Terracycle that offers recycling boxes. 

Thanks to these researchers, I have included a few suggestions on how you can help solve this environmental dilemma: 

Talk to your friends who wear contact lenses.

Post lens disposal information on social media.

Contact local optometrists and ask them to have posters created to highlight the hazards of flushing contact lenses into the sewage system. Inquire about including safe disposal instructions on printed literature and packaging.

Plastic pollution in our watersheds has become a grave issue. Faced with the accumulation of contact lenses in the ocean, citizens and corporations can solve this issue with public education.

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~ Larraine writes children’s books that highlight the joy of composting and pollinating with the adventures of Pee Wee at Castle Compost. With illustrations, songs, and poems, the stories unearth the miracles of nature’s cycle of life. Fun and factual for all ages. To order, postage free visit: