How Contact Lenses Are Contributing To Microplastic Pollution

Plastic pollution: 'Stop flushing contact lenses down the loo'

Plastic pollution: 'Stop flushing contact lenses down the loo'

Researchers said they hope their study will sound a warning to manufacturers of contact lenses, and encourage users to dispose of them properly with other solid waste.

After noticing that very little research has looked at what happens to old contact lenses, Arizona State University researchers conducted a survey of 139 individuals, both lens wearers and non-wearers.

Around 45m people wear contacts in the United States, while rates in other countries vary, with between 5 and 15% of the population in Europe using them.

An American study has found that old contact lenses are becoming a source of more plastic pollution in waterways and oceans. To help address their fate during treatment, the researchers exposed five polymers found in many manufacturers' contact lenses to anaerobic and aerobic microorganisms present at wastewater treatment plants for varying times and performed Raman spectroscopy to analyze them. And with 45 million contact lens wearers in the USA alone, that's a lot of contacts ending up in water treatment plants. In fact, the team estimates that at least six metric tonnes of lenses end up in wastewater each year in the USA alone.

The microplastics that are produced as the contacts bust up into smaller pieces can easily be mistaken by aquatic wildlife as food. "[The study researchers'] method of making assumptions and estimations is quite reasonable", she adds.

"There's been a lot of research done on single-use, lower-value plastics such as straws, silverware and plastic bags", says Charles Rolsky, an ASU doctoral student and the study's lead author.

That's because a new study finds that discarding contacts lenses in these ways may ultimately end up contributing to microplastic pollution in waterways.

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The researchers found that contact lenses are so flexible that they can sometimes slide through the physical barriers meant to filter out nonbiological waste at treatment plants. The team concluded that microbes in the wastewater treatment facility actually altered the surface of the contact lenses, weakening the bonds in the plastic polymers. They even come in tiny packets of saline solution.

"They persist during water treatment, they become part of sewage sludge", Prof Rolf Halden, from the Centre for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State told BBC News.

Halden said people don't think of the lenses as plastic waste because they feel like fluid, nearly like water. These animals are part of a long food chain. Alternatively, Bausch & Lomb offers a recycling program for any brand of contact lenses and packaging.

"If you use them, just make sure you put them into the solid waste, and not have them enter the sink or toilet", Halden says.

Contact lens companies often provide no package instructions about where to dispose of lenses, the ASU researchers note.

Obviously, people shouldn't stop wearing contact lenses altogether.

"They are a real improvement in quality of life and are a justified use of plastic, so if we decide as a society that we want to use plastic for these purposes, we should also present the consumer with the chance to get rid of these materials in a responsible fashion".

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