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97% of contact lens users are damaging the environment

The UK throws over 750 million contact lenses down the drain or into landfill every year, damaging the environment and filling oceans with microplastics

Vast amounts of plastic are unwittingly being thrown down the toilet or sink by contact lens users, potentially ending up in the oceans. New figures from Optical Express suggest that over 750 million plastic lenses are being flushed down the drain or put in landfill every year. These lenses form microplastics, pollute the oceans and endanger marine life.

Almost 800 million plastic contact lenses are used by more than 4 million people in the UK each year[2] and this is having a huge, but often overlooked, impact on the environment. In a survey of over 3,000 UK contact lens users, Optical Express found that 97%[1] are damaging the environment by throwing them down the drain or in the bin, and only 3%[1] of people recycle their lenses. The survey found that people from Nottingham were the least environmentally friendly, where 98%[1] of people always throw their used lenses in the bin or down the drain. The best performing city for contact lens pollution is Bristol, but even there a shocking 87%[1] of people never recycle their plastic lenses.

Most plastic waste from the contact lenses themselves and their packaging end up in the ocean or in landfill. Once in landfill it may take up to 500 years to decompose, potentially leaking pollutants into the soil and water. Even more shocking, more than 1 in 4 people (27%)[1] admit to disposing of their lenses via the sink or toilet – with the true number of offenders potentially higher still. The situation is even worse than had been previously thought. A similar study by contact lens manufacturer Johnson & Johnson found that 1 in 5 people (20%)[3] were flushing their used lenses down the drain.

As they go through sewage systems, contact lenses break down into smaller particles and ultimately form microplastics. These microplastics pollute the oceans and are mistaken for food by marine animals. A recent University of Exeter study[4] found that every single seal, dolphin and whale washed up on Britain’s shores had traces of plastic in its stomach.

We are urging people to rethink their contact lens use. One in every three [1] of the contact lens wearers who responded to our survey said they were completely unaware of the environmental impact their contacts were having. As one of the UK’s leading contact lens suppliers, we have launched a package of measures to tackle the problem of plastic pollution from lenses. The new initiative will make contact lens users more aware of the environmental impact of contact lenses and will give advice on alternatives to disposable lenses, such as laser eye or lens surgery.

We are now asking people who wear contact lenses to consider their vision correction choices carefully.  This includes considering the options of laser eye or intraocular lens surgery. Those who choose to continue to use plastic contacts are being encouraged to dispose of their lenses responsibly, and the eye care provider has placed contact lens recycling boxes in its locations nationwide. 

No contact lens manufacturer currently includes information on the environmental impact of contact lenses on their packaging. As the UK’s only complete eye care provider, we have therefore decided to take action ourselves. With every pack of plastic contact lenses it sells, we will now give consumers information on the environmental impact of lenses and advice on how to properly dispose of used lenses. We are also calling upon other eye care practices to do likewise. The UK Government has recently taken measures to reduce plastic waste from straws and cotton buds. Their view on contact lenses is unknown.

Speaking about the eye care provider’s commitment to the environment, Clinical Services Director at Optical Express, Stephen Hannan, said:

“Everyone knows we need to take urgent action to reduce the amount of plastic we’re using in every aspect of our lives. It’s time we all took more responsibility for how our personal decisions affect the environment. We all have choices in terms of vision correction, whether that’s to wear glasses more often or get laser eye surgery, but whatever you do, don’t throw your contact lenses down the drain.”

“We’d suspected that some people were disposing of lenses down the drain, but it’s shocking to learn the true scale of the problem.

“Think of all the plastic that would be saved if the 4.2 million UK contact lens wearers chose to have laser eye surgery. Contact lenses not only have an environmental impact, but they can be very expensive over the course of a lifetime, and prolonged use increases the risk of eye infections. In the long run, eye surgery is better for the environment, better for your pocket and better for your eyes.”

As part of our commitment to reducing our environmental impact, Optical Express has also enlisted “say no to plastic” campaigner and former TV and radio presenter Heather Suttie. The anti-plastic bag campaign that she spearheaded a decade ago led to the Scottish Government bringing in the 5p bag levy in 2014. Speaking about her work on contact lens plastic, Heather said:

“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. Businesses have a responsibility to educate their patients and customers with information on the environmental impact of products and should offer alternative solutions where possible.”

“With 125 million contact lens users worldwide, this is a global crisis and it needs action on a massive scale.[6] Billions of used contact lenses and their packaging are causing widespread pollution and people simply don’t realise the damage. People have been flushing or binning used contact lenses and their packaging for decades, causing untold environmental damage. We need to take action now.”

“It’s great that Optical Express is taking the war on plastic seriously and I hope other eye care providers follow their lead. Through this kind of information and support, all of us can make better informed choices and start cleaning up our oceans and our beaches.”

Our teams at more than 120 clinics across the UK and Ireland can discuss alternative, more sustainable vision correction solutions available, including laser eye surgery.

 

 

 

References:

 [1] Optical Express Survey of Contact Lens Users

Optical Express surveyed over 3,000 contact lens users across the UK between May and September 2019. Further information on the survey and the breakdown of responses available on request.

 

 [2] Association of Contact Lens Manufacturers

Statistics on the size and growth of the UK contact lens market and the number of contact lens wearers in the UK.

https://www.abdo.org.uk/news/aclm-2016-contact-lens-statistics/

 

[3] Johnson & Johnson One Poll research with 1,000 contact lens wearers in the UK (Nov 2018)

20% of contact lens wearers reported that they currently dispose of their lenses by flushing them down the toilet or the sink.

https://www.jjvision.com/press-release/johnson-johnson-vision-launches-uks-first-free-nationwide-recycling-programme-all

 

[4] University of Exeter Study

Microplastics have been found in the guts of every marine mammal examined in a new study of animals washed up on Britain’s shores.

https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/research/title_702052_en.html

 

 [5] Arizona State University

American nationwide study that showing consumers, by discarding used lenses down the drain, may be unknowingly contributing to plastic pollution.

https://asunow.asu.edu/20180819-discoveries-asu-scientists-1st-nationwide-study-environmental-costs-contact-lenses

 

[6] Johnson & Johnson Contact Lens Market Statistics

Approximately 125 million people worldwide wear contact lenses to correct common vision problems.

https://www.jjvision.com/sites/default/files/2018-09/Contact_Lens_Fast_Facts.pdf