Contact Lens Recycling: Informative Guide on Sustainable Eye Care Practices

Last updated on March 27, 2024

Discover the environmental impact of disposable contacts and learn practical strategies for recycling contact lenses effectively.

Key takeaways:

  • Disposable contact lenses contribute to microplastic pollution.
  • Microplastics harm aquatic life and can bioaccumulate toxins.
  • Specialized recycling processes are needed for contact lens materials.
  • Contact lens recycling programs exist with manufacturers and optometrists.
  • Patients should utilize recycling programs and practice proper disposal habits.
1of 6

Conventional contact lenses are predominately made from hydrogel or silicone hydrogel, polymers that sadly do not escape the problem of plastic pollution. When these lenses are discarded improperly, often flushed down the sink or toilet, they can fragment into smaller plastic pieces. These tiny particles, known as microplastics, are less than five millimeters in length but pose a substantial ecological threat.

Due to their minuscule size, microplastics easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans, where they can be ingested by aquatic life, potentially making their way up the food chain to humans. This not only impacts the health of marine ecosystems but also raises concerns about human exposure to plastic-related toxins.

Furthermore, contact lenses’ buoyant and flexible nature allows them to bind with natural materials in the water, creating additional environmental hazards. Addressing this problem requires proper disposal and recycling to minimize their contribution to the ever-increasing microplastic pollution.

2of 6

The Environmental Impact of Microplastics

Microplastics, minute plastic particles often originating from larger plastic waste that degrades over time, pose a significant threat to various ecosystems. When discarded contact lenses fragment into microplastics, they infiltrate water systems. Because these tiny fragments are not biodegradable, they can accumulate within bodies of water, affecting the quality and safety of aquatic habitats.

Marine life is particularly vulnerable. Fish and other aquatic organisms can mistake microplastics for food, leading to ingestion. This not only harms individual organisms but also has the potential to work its way up the food chain, affecting larger predators and eventually even humans who consume sea life.

Furthermore, microplastics can absorb and concentrate toxins from their surroundings, magnifying their impact when ingested. Over time, this can result in bioaccumulation of hazardous substances within the tissues of organisms, leading to ecological imbalance and health issues for wildlife and humans alike.

On shorelines and land, the residues can alter soil composition and disrupt the natural activities of organisms like earthworms, which are crucial for soil health. It is in this broader environmental context that the importance of appropriate disposal and recycling of contact lenses becomes critical, driving efforts to mitigate the proliferation of microplastics.

3of 6

Recycling Used Contact Lens Materials

Recycling contact lens materials presents unique challenges due to the blend of plastics and silicone hydrogel typically used in their construction. Unlike common plastics, these materials require specialized processes to break down and repurpose effectively. This specialized recycling prevents lenses from contributing to landfill mass or, worse, breaking down into microplastics that pollute waterways.

The process begins when users deposit their lenses into designated recycling containers, often available at optometrist offices or through mail-back programs with participating companies. On reaching a recycling facility, the contact lenses are cleaned and sorted. Innovative technologies are then employed to separate lens materials into pure plastics and silicone hydrogels, which can then be recycled independently.

Recycling these materials gives them a second life, often in the form of outdoor furniture, plastic lumber, or even playground equipment – a testament to the potential for contact lenses to be incorporated into durable goods that serve a new purpose. By recirculating these resources, we conserve raw materials and energy, furthermore reducing the overall environmental footprint of vision correction.

4of 6

Contact Lens Recycling Programs

Several manufacturers and retailers have recognized the need for proper disposal of contact lenses and have initiated recycling programs. Notably, Bausch + Lomb, in partnership with TerraCycle, offers a free recycling program for used contact lenses and their packaging. This initiative allows users to mail in their discarded items or to drop them off at designated locations.

Pharmacies and optometrist offices are increasingly providing collection boxes where contact lenses can be deposited for recycling. These programs aim to repurpose the materials into new products such as outdoor furniture and plastic lumber, diverting waste from landfills and waterways.

The effectiveness of these programs hinges on public participation. It’s crucial for contact lens users to be proactive in collecting and sending off their used lenses to these specific recycling channels. Regular participation contributes substantially to reducing the environmental footprint of corrective vision products.

Educational efforts from eye care professionals play a fundamental role in making patients aware of such programs. They can serve as an influential touchpoint, offering guidance on how to engage with these programs and emphasizing the importance of responsible contact lens disposal.

5of 6

Patient Education On Responsible Contact Lens Recycling Practices

Educating patients on proper contact lens disposal is essential for mitigating environmental harm. With awareness, individuals can make a significant difference. Here are some key points for patients to understand:

1. Local Recycling Programs: Not all curbside programs can process contact lenses. Patients should look for specific recycling initiatives by manufacturers or retailers and utilize their collection points or mail-back systems.

2. Proper Disposal Habits: Flushing lenses down the toilet or washbasin must be avoided, as they can bypass filtration systems at sewage plants, contributing to microplastic pollution. Instead, patients should place used lenses in designated recycling bins or store them until they can reach a recycling facility.

3. Alternative Packaging Disposal: Many patients don’t realize that the blister packs contacts come in are often recyclable. The foil tops should be separated from the plastic and disposed of accordingly, potentially in regular recycling bins if the local facility accepts them.

4. Community Engagement: Patients can partake in or organize community drives to collect contact lenses for recycling, increasing the volume of material being responsibly processed and encouraging collective action.

5. Use Duration and Care: Thoughtful contact lens usage extends beyond recycling. Patients should consider the environmental benefits of longer-wear lenses over disposables and follow care routines that prolong lens life, thus reducing waste.

By understanding these aspects, patients become active participants in a sustainable approach to contact lens usage, reducing the environmental footprint one lens at a time.

6of 6


Where can I recycle unused contact lenses?

Unused contact lenses and their packaging can be recycled free of charge at your local Specsavers store, in partnership with waste disposal company MYgroup.

Can hard contact lenses be recycled?

No, hard contact lenses cannot be recycled in the U.S. due to their small size, but the packaging and instructional guide they come with can be.

How are contact lenses recycled?

The recycling process of contact lenses involves separating and cleaning the lenses and blister packs, followed by recycling the metal layers separately, and melting down the lenses and plastic components into a reusable plastic for the creation of new recycled items.

What to do with expired contacts?

When confirming the expiration date of contact lenses, especially on the box, it’s advisable to discard them if the expiration date has faded away, embracing the principle "when in doubt, throw it out.

What environmental impact do discarded contact lenses have?

Discarded contact lenses contribute to microplastic pollution in the environment, particularly in water bodies, affecting aquatic ecosystems.

Can contact lens packaging materials be recycled?

Yes, certain elements of contact lens packaging such as the cardboard boxes can often be recycled, however, the tiny plastic containers and foil lids are typically not recyclable due to their size and mixture of materials.

Is there any potential for reuse in the process of contact lens recycling?

Yes, there is potential for reuse in contact lens recycling, specifically in using the recycled plastic materials to create non-medical products.

Related reading:

Read more

Read more

Read more

Read more

Read more

Read more

Table of Contents