Published in Contact Lens

How To Responsibly Recycle Contact Lenses in 2023

This is editorially independent content
8 min read

Familiarize yourself with contact lens recycling programs available to optometrists to improve your office's sustainability practices.

How To Responsibly Recycle Contact Lenses in 2023
While daily replacement soft contact lenses are often considered the healthiest and most comfortable option for patients, how often do we think about their impact on the environment?
I have the occasional monthly contact lens wearer who is hesitant to switch to daily lenses due to their concerns about the additional plastic waste from many more contact lens blister packs.
While this is a legitimate concern, the more troubling question may be regarding the environmental impact of the contact lenses themselves.

The link between contact lenses and microplastics

Contact lenses seem innocuous enough, given their small size. However, soft contact lenses turn brittle when they dry and break into tiny particles, known as microplastics. Microplastics are resistant to natural degradation processes, breaking down into smaller particles over time instead of fully biodegrading. This persistence exacerbates their accumulation in ecosystems and the potential for widespread contamination.
In this article, we’ll review the impact that improper disposal of contact lenses can have on the environment. We’ll also look at ways optometrists and their patients can get involved with various free recycling programs for contact lenses and their packaging.

The environmental impact of microplastics

These particles can be as small as a grain of salt, which can be consumed or inhaled by wildlife and make their way into the food chain. Microplastics are especially detrimental in marine environments where fish and shellfish are exposed to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals from the breakdown of these plastics in the water. This results in a potential problem for the entire food chain as larger animals, including humans, eat animals who have been exposed to these microplastics.¹
While the direct impact of microplastics on human health is still being studied, there is growing evidence suggesting potential risks. Microplastics have been found in various food items, including seafood, salt, and drinking water, raising concerns about human ingestion. The long-term health implications of consuming microplastics are not yet fully understood and are the topic of continued study.2
If you ask your patients how they dispose of their lenses, they will likely either throw them in the trash or flush them down the sink or toilet. A 2018 study by Arizona State University estimated that Americans dispose of over 13.2 billion contact lenses each year, with 20% of these lenses being washed down the sink or toilet.3 So, how should we be disposing of our contact lenses? We should be recycling them!

The small size of contact lenses does not allow them to be recycled in typical curbside recycling bins. Fortunately, there are programs that focus solely on recycling contact lenses and eyecare products.

Contact lens recycling programs

To address the environmental impact of contact lenses, the One by One recycling program was created by Bausch + Lomb and TerraCycle. The program allows for the recycling of all brands of contact lenses and contact lens blister packs, not just Bausch + Lomb. Although sponsored by Bausch + Lomb, all brands of contact lenses and blister packs are accepted for recycling.
Through the program, more than 65 million units, equivalent to 397,194 pounds, of used contact lenses, top foils, and blister packs have been recovered to date.4 These materials are creatively recycled and transformed into post-consumer products like park benches and picnic tables.5 
Another important recycling program, the BioTrue Eye Care Recycling program, is an additional collaboration between Bausch + Lomb and TerraCycle. This initiative focuses on recycling contact lens cases, single-dose eye drop vials, multidose eye drop bottles, and lens solution caps, offering a comprehensive solution for reducing waste from eye care products.6
In addition, Coopervision has partnered with Plastic Bank, a company dedicated to removing plastic waste from coastal communities for recycling. Through this collaboration, Coopervision's microplastics production is offset, making MyDay, Misight 1 Day, Biofinity, and Clariti 1 day contacts net-plastic neutral.7

Patient education on contact lens recycling programs

While contact lens cardboard boxes and lens solution bottles (without caps) can usually be recycled through standard curbside recycling, it's crucial for optometrists to inform patients about these specialized recycling programs.
By encouraging patients to participate and properly dispose of their contact lenses, blister packs, cases, and other associated items through these programs, optometrists can contribute to a more sustainable and environmentally conscious approach to contact lens use.
Table 1 outlines various contact lens recycling programs and what they are able to recycle.
ItemOne by One/TerraCycleBioTrue Eye Care Recycling/TerraCycleLocal/curbside recycling
Contact lenses (all brands)X
Blister packs/top foils (all brands)X
Solution bottlesX
Solution bottle capsX
Contact lens casesX
Eye drop bottles and caps/eye drop vialsX
Cardboard outer packaging for contacts and eye dropsX
Table 1: Courtesy of Elizabeth Davis, OD, FAAO.

How to become a contact lens recycling drop-off site

Reach out to your local Bausch + Lomb representative or sign up online if you would like to establish your office as a contact lens recycling drop-off site.
TerraCycle provides in-office recycling bins for drop off of contact lenses and eyecare products. There are no costs associated with being a drop-off site. By signing up, you can download free shipping labels to send used contacts and blister packs for recycling.
In addition, you will be listed as a drop-off location for contact lens recycling. Your office will be added to the locator map on the TerraCycle website, which allows consumers to search their location to find an eyecare office that is collecting contacts and blister packs for recycling.

By collaborating with TerraCycle, optometrists can facilitate the collection and proper recycling of contact lenses, ensuring they are diverted from landfills and their materials are repurposed in an environmentally responsible way.

Patient education on responsible contact lens recycling practices

In light of the environmental impact of contact lenses, it is crucial for optometrists to play an active role in promoting responsible disposal and recycling practices. One effective way to address this issue is by informing patients about these contact lens recycling programs. These programs provide a convenient and eco-friendly solution for disposing of used contact lenses and their packaging.
If there is no drop-off location nearby, patients also have the option of mailing their contact lenses and blister packs to TerraCycle. To further reduce the carbon footprint, it is requested that they collect a year's supply of used contacts and blister packs before mailing them in.

Summary

The environmental impact of contact lenses should be a significant consideration for optometrists and patients alike. The accumulation of microplastics in ecosystems and food sources is of growing concern.
However, the Bausch + Lomb and TerraCycle collaborative recycling programs offer a solution to address this issue. Optometrists can educate their patients about these recycling programs, encouraging proper disposal and participation to reduce environmental impact.
By promoting responsible recycling practices and offering information about drop-off locations (or mail-in recycling!), optometrists can actively contribute to a more sustainable approach to contact lens use and help protect the environment.
  1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Microplastics. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Ocean Service. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html. Accessed June 26, 2023
  2. Cornelius K. Contact Lenses Are a Surprising Source of Pollution. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/contact-lenses-are-a-surprising-source-of-pollution/. Published August 20, 2018.
  3. Arizona State University News. First Nationwide Study Shows the Environmental Costs of Contact Lenses." Arizona State University News. https://news.asu.edu/content/first-nationwide-study-shows-environmental-costs-contact-lenses. Published August 19, 2018.
  4. Breeman D. Contact Lens Companies Strive to Reach Sustainability Goals. Vision Monday. https://www.visionmonday.com/business/article/contact-lens-companies-strive-to-reach-sustainability-goals/. Published May 14, 2023. Accessed June 26, 2023.
  5. Egan J. Don’t Flush Contact Lenses. Recycle Them. All About Vision. https://www.allaboutvision.com/contact-lenses/recycle/. Accessed June 26, 2023.
  6. Biotrue. Biotrue Eye Care Recycling. Biotrue. https://www.biotrue.com/terracycle/. Accessed June 26, 2023.
  7. CooperVision Expands Plastic Neutrality Initiative." CooperVision, https://coopervision.com/our-company/news-center/press-release/coopervision-expands-plastic-neutrality-initiative. Published January 11, 2023. Accessed June 26, 2023.
Elizabeth Davis, OD, FAAO
About Elizabeth Davis, OD, FAAO

Dr. Elizabeth Davis graduated from Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, TN in 2019. Upon graduation, she completed a residency in primary care and ocular disease at the W.G Bill Hefner VA Hospital in Salisbury, NC. Dr. Davis was awarded her fellowship in the American Academy of Optometry in 2020.

She currently practices in Winston Salem, NC where she enjoys the challenges of fitting specialty contact lenses, educating patients on myopia control, and managing ocular disease. She is a member of local and national optometric associations.

Elizabeth Davis, OD, FAAO
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