I’ve been a contact lens wearer for over 40 years. I started out wearing contacts that lasted several months and eventually graduated to daily disposable lenses, attracted by their comfort and no fuss maintenance. But looking back, I cringe to think of how many lenses and blister packs I’ve thrown away over the years. Every morning, after inserting my contacts, I put the blister packs in recycling and at night I throw my lenses in the garbage (NOT down the sink or toilet).

According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), I am one of 45 million people in the U.S. who wear contact lenses. But after researching this feature, I have to ask myself—is there something more I could be doing when it comes to disposing of those contact lenses, which in a short time turn into hard, breakable bubbles of plastic once they leave my eyes and hit the garbage can. In a word, the answer is yes.

According to the AOA, many patients are unaware that there is an environmentally friend way to dispose of their worn contact lenses. The organization cited a 2018 Arizona State University study which found “as many as 1 in 5 contact lens wearers dispose of their lenses down the sink or toilet, contributing an estimated 6 to 10 metric tons of plastic lenses to U.S. wastewater each year. Furthermore, those lenses break down into microplastics at treatment plants, posing a risk to marine organisms and food supply, researchers claimed.”

A recent episode on “60 Minutes” titled the Plastic Plague, offered a sobering view of just how much microplastics end up polluting our oceans and killing off marine life. “60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi reported on the problem’s deadly consequences for wildlife and outlined some solutions as to what can be done to stop it.

What Are Americans Doing About Microplastics?
A survey for Statista by YouGov has revealed that only 52 percent of adults in the U.S. have heard of microplastics. The issue, which has been troubling environmentalists in recent years, has been garnering more attention in the media, with headlines such as “Microplastics are raining down from the sky,” or “There’s no getting away from microplastic contamination” raising awareness. So what are the 52 percent doing to reduce the production of/contact with microplastics?

The survey revealed that the most common action is recycling (more) plastic products. Next up, almost 30 percent say they now try to avoid buying food in plastic packaging, while a similar amount of people also try to avoid consuming drinks from plastic bottles.

Unfortunately, the survey also revealed that some 21 percent of respondents said they have done nothing and have no plans to do anything about the problem of microplastics. Click here to read the full story from Statista.com.

These days, the environment is top of mind for many Americans and the optical industry is no exception. VMail Weekend reached out to several contact lens manufacturers who are leading the way for environmentally-conscious ways to dispose of contact lenses and their packaging. Here’s what they had to say.

Bausch + Lomb
Bausch + Lomb launched the ONE by ONE Recycling Program in 2016 in partnership with TerraCycle, a world leader in the collection and repurposing of hard-to-recycle post-consumer waste, to help put an end to this enormous loss of resources in order to help protect communities and preserve the natural environment for current and future generations.

The first of its kind in the U.S., the ONE by ONE Recycling program provides contact lens wearers the opportunity to recycle their used contact lenses, blister packs and top foils properly. This is important, because even though the material used to manufacture these contact lens materials are recyclable, the materials typically don’t end up being recycled even if placed in standard “blue bins” due to their small size.

Additionally, for every qualifying shipment of waste that weighs 10 pounds or more from a practice, a $1 per pound donation is made to Optometry Giving Sight, the only global fundraising organization that specifically targets the prevention of blindness and impaired vision by providing eye exams and glasses to those in need.

“Before the ONE by ONE Recycling Program launched in 2016, eyecare professionals and their patients did not have an option to ensure that their used contact lenses, blister packs and top foils were properly recycled, and this was becoming of increasing concern with the adoption of daily disposable contact lenses,” said John Ferris, general manager, U.S. Vision Care, Bausch + Lomb.

“We learned through our collaboration with TerraCycle that even those who thought they could recycle them in standard ‘blue bins’ were doing so incorrectly—the used materials either contaminate other recyclable materials or are diverted to landfills because of their small size. With the ONE by ONE Recycling program, which has recycled 12 million units of contact lens materials to date, contact lens wearers and eyecare professionals now have a straightforward, simple solution. Together with eyecare professionals and their patients, we are helping to reduce the environmental impact these materials create,” Ferris said.

Once TerraCycle receives the used contact lenses, blister packs and top foil, the shipment is checked in and weighed. The collections are then sent for manual separation, where any non-compliant materials are removed. After manual separation, the remaining material is shredded, and the blister pack foil lids are separated from the plastic materials (if they aren’t already). The plastic is then melted and extruded into plastic pellets, and the foil lids and metals from the blister packs are sent for smelting and metals recycling. Any additional metal material is filtered out during the extrusion process. The waste can then be reused, upcycled and recycled into new products.

And the good news is that all types and brands of used contact lens materials—contact lenses, top foil and opened plastic blister packs—are accepted as part of the Bausch + Lomb ONE by ONE Recycling program.

Currently, more than 4,000 offices around the U.S. participate in the ONE by ONE Recycling Program. Through B+L’s sales representatives, educational events, and other touch points such as emails and brochures, the company encourages optometry practices to join the ONE by ONE Recycling program as a registered recycling center.

By registering for the program, eyecare professionals are provided in-office promotional materials as well as large custom recycling bins to collect the used contact lenses, blister packs and top foil that are generated from the practice and its patients. Once the recycling bins are full, eyecare professionals can print a free shipping label provided by Bausch + Lomb and mail the materials in to be properly recycled through TerraCycle.

All registered optometry practices are also listed on the Bausch + Lomb ONE by ONE website as an office that is currently involved in the program.

Johnson & Johnson Vision
A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson Vision said, “The company launched the U.K.’s first free recycling program for contact lenses in January. Known as the Acuvue Contact Lens Recycle Programme, it allows all contact lens wearers to dispose of their lenses, blister packaging and foil regardless of the brand. The company takes the recyclable waste and turns it into products such as outdoor furniture and plastic lumber. Consumers are given the option to dispose of their contact lens material at Boots Opticians and select independent practices or have it collected via courier.”

“Seventy-seven percent of British contact lens wearers said they would recycle their contact lenses if they could and we share their interest in reducing the amount of plastics in the environment,” said Sandra Rasche, area vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Vision Care, Johnson & Johnson Medical GmbH. “As a business, we are committed to doing our part to combat climate change, protect our planet’s natural resources and reduce waste, and this new U.K. recycling program represents the next step in our company’s sustainability commitment.”

Johnson & Johnson Vision is collaborating with TerraCycle, a world leader in the collection and reuse of non-recyclable post-consumer waste to run the program. Open for all in the U.K., contact lens wearers are encouraged to check the Acuvue and TerraCycle websites for details on their nearest public drop-off location points or to recycle from home via courier collection.

According to a spokesperson from Alcon, “the company seeks to design packaging that both minimizes environmental impacts and meets all regulatory, quality, functional and design requirements.” Toward that end, Alcon has:

• Developed and issued a sustainable packaging guide for their packing design teams.

• Utilized best practice packaging case examples that are collected and shared among packaging designers across the company.

• Made sure their design and development program ensures products are manufactured and placed on the market in conformance with global product-related legislation, including EU Medical Device Regulation, REACH, RoHS, Packaging Waste and global equivalents.

Pamela Jackson, senior director of Global Communications, CooperVision said, “We believe that the greatest possible impact today relates to maintaining a sustainable production environment. It offers the greatest direct reduce/reuse/recycling control of the highest volume of materials—for instance, water conservation, responsible energy use, and materials recycling.

“While we’re focused on the less visible but more meaningful production side of the equation, we’re also investigating other consumer-facing programs that may offer meaningful returns, and even piloting them outside of the U.S,” she said.

How ECPs Can Advise Patients on Recycling Contact Lenses 

To help bolster awareness around proper contact lens disposal, the AOA's Contact Lens and Cornea Section (CLCS)  developed a resource to help doctors educate their patients. Here are three tips:
1. Inform patients about recycling programs available for contact lenses and packaging, including terracycle.com, or consider turning your practice into a recycling drop-off site.
2. Although most contact lens packages are stamped No. 5 for recycling, according to Terracycle, the size is what causes them to either contaminate other recyclable materials or be diverted to landfills. In fact, The Association of Plastic Recyclers confirms this fact, stating that the industry standard screen size, which identifies and removes unrecyclable plastics, filters out materials that measure less than three inches in diameter. Meaning standard recycling facilities are unable to process these small items.
3. Remind patients that boxes and cleaning solution bottles may be recyclable, too.
Click here to access the AOA CLCS Proper Contact Lens Disposal fact sheet and click here to download an infographic for patient education.