Are plastic contact lens actually bad for the planet?

Climate change used to be a distant concern in the back of our minds. A vague intention to recycle and carshare to help out your grandkids and maybe save a few polar bears.

Now it’s right on our doorsteps. To the point leading climate scientists around the world have signed an agreement warning of “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” and suggesting that “to secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live.”

It sounds straightforward enough. Ditch the gasoline-powered car for at least a hybrid and step the recycling up a notch.

But the fact is, other than a few things here and there, many of us don’t know where to start with such a call to action because we don’t understand how the everyday activities and habits we engage in actually impact the environment.

Some of these little unknown daily planet killers include using face wash products that contain plastic exfoliating micro-beads, which pass through sewage filters and damage the gills of fish, wasting energy by leaving the TV and computer and your eight devices on or charging for twelve hours a day.

Along with this endless list is another habit that many people are quick to overlook, mainly as it is something only people with poor eyesight do.

As new research shows, contact lenses seem to be one of these undercover polluters of the natural world. Around 150 million people worldwide wear contact lenses, not just for vision, but for everything from beauty and Halloween purposes to sport and therapeutic reasons. And so, although they’re small, and they’re the ultimate in rentable, convenient vision, they may also be a significant source of inadvertent pollution to the environment.

The tiny plastic discs that are harming the planet

In discovering how and to what extent contact lenses affect the planet, contact lens and eye surgery provider Optical Express commissioned a report and found probably a bit more than they bargained for.

The researchers in the study found that 97 per cent of contact wearers were inadvertently polluting the environment by throwing their used lenses away.

Specifically, the study revealed that more than 780 million contact lenses are disposed of every year in Britain alone, either by throwing them straight in the bin or flushing them down the loo.

These 750 million lenses end up either in landfill sites, incinerators, or our sewers, where they become plastic pollution. This form of pollution is particularly hazardous as when plastic enters the environment, it breaks down into microplastic particles, polluting oceans and rivers and potentially endangering marine life.

Much like the disposable plastic cartons and containers we use and throw away every day, contact lenses and their plastic packaging that goes to landfill sites can take over 500 years to decompose. Here, the other added danger of potentially allowing plastic pollution to leak into our soil and water systems.

The survey consisted of around 3,000 contact lens wearers in the UK, so the actual figures are likely to be much higher. However, when added up to include other countries and create a total of contact wearers worldwide, the scale of the potential impact becomes almost too big to imagine.

But here’s the thing. If contact lenses can be so bad for the planet, we as consumers would be aware of this before even getting to the point of considering wearing them?

“As consumers, we always have a choice.”

Along with their contact usage, participants of the survey were also asked whether they felt they had received enough information about the environmental impact of vision correction methods and how such an impact influenced which method they choose.

As you might expect, a big chunk of the respondents said they were entirely unaware of how their choice of vision correction was impacting the environment. In response to the results, Optical Express Clinical Services Director Stephen Hannan said, “Think of all the plastic that would be saved if the 4.2 million UK contact lens wearers chose to have Laser Eye Surgery.”

The research also garnered interest from a few climate activists such as  ‘Say No To Plastic’ campaigner and former broadcaster Heather Suttie. Suttie responded to the study by reminding us as consumers that,  “As we all become more environmentally aware and understand the impact on the planet of our decisions and actions, we learn that as consumers, we always have a choice.”

Suttie also added that “With 125 million contact lens users worldwide, this is a global crisis, and it needs action on a massive scale. Billions of used contact lenses and their packaging are causing widespread pollution, and people simply don’t realise the damage.”

But she also had some positive words to say about the findings: “It’s great that Optical Express is taking the war on plastic seriously, and I hope other eye care providers follow their lead.”

Contact lenses are an incredible invention that benefits millions of people around the world by helping them access clear and convenient vision. Unfortunately, they also happen to come with a few downsides, and that’s without even mentioning their high cost over the long term and the risk of infection they pose to wearers.

To help address their environmental impact, Optical Express encourages wearers to dispose of used lenses in an environmentally friendly manner — using special recycling boxes made available in some of their stores.

But the fact is, it might be a better idea to ditch the contacts altogether. After all, it works out better for your pocket, better for your eye health, and better for the environment if you seek out alternative options.