Ask an Environmentalist: What is the eco-friendly way to dispose of contact lenses?

I was surprised recently to hear a friend say: “I accidentally rinsed my husband’s contacts down the sink instead of my own.”

As an environmentalist, I thought: What? People rinse contacts down the sink?

After I interrupted the story to learn more about my friend’s contact disposal methods, I was asked, “OK, so what am I supposed to do with them?” I promised to research the most eco-friendly way to dispose of contact lenses, and here is what I found.

Contacts are made of plastic, and we are in the midst of a global plastic pollution crisis.  According to the American Chemical Society, about 20 percent of people put contacts down a drain to dispose of them, creating tons of plastic waste in the water supply each year.

So what is the best way to deal with them? You probably know what I’m going to say. Reduce. Reduce first, always. Reduce the number of contacts you wear by switching from a daily disposable to a longer-wear style. Reduce the times you wear contacts to fewer occasions and go with glasses more often.  You can even take the bold step of being a zero waste warrior and refusing the single use plastic that is contact lenses and their packaging altogether. Glasses are trendy right now anyway.

Suppose you don’t have a lifestyle or look that works with wearing glasses all day, and you have reduced your use to the level you are comfortable with for now. There is still a significant amount of packaging and accessories in addition to the contacts themselves to deal with when you are ready to dispose of them.

First, please don’t ever rinse contacts down the sink or flush them down the toilet. I’m going a tiny bit off topic here to say that you should not put anything down the toilet besides human waste and toilet paper. It’s a big problem that creates something called fatbergs, or blobs of fat and trash that are clogging up sewers. They are as horrible as they sound and detrimental to our municipal water services. Things you probably think are flushable but are not include dental floss, tampons and applicators, condoms, hair, ear swabs, drugs, and “flushable” wipes.  (Flushable wipes are a lie. They do cause issues in the water supply.) 

OK, back to contacts. If you flush them down a drain and they don’t get lodged in a fatberg, they will go to the water treatment facility where they will be filtered out of our water along with other solids and become part of the sludge that is treated to kill pathogens, dried and then spread as fertilizer on crops.  Then there is plastic on the ground, in our food supply and washed into the water supply to break down into microplastic to be consumed by animals and ourselves. 

But there is good news: Bausche and Lomb and Terracycle have partnered to let you recycle any brand of contacts as well as the blister packs and foil they come in. You can either save them up for a while then mail them in for free using a label from their website, or there are two drop-off locations in Fort Wayne. I bet if all the contact wearers out there asked their eye care professionals to participate, there would be even more. 

Bottles of eye drops, cleaning solution, and some cases are also recyclable through our normal curbside and drop-off services in Allen County if they have a #1, #2, or #5 on the bottom. Put a recycling bin in your bathroom for other stuff like shampoo bottles and paperboard boxes, too, while you are at it.

As a last resort, you can throw your contacts away. 

Read more articles by Jodi Leamon.

Jodi Leamon is a Fort Wayne native with degrees in Environmental Studies from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Biology from the University of Illinois Chicago. Send her your questions at [email protected]
Signup for Email Alerts