Those tiny contact lenses can create a big waste problem. Here’s a way to focus on change

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Ginger Merpaw of London, Ontario, has been wearing contact lenses for almost 40 years and had no idea the microplastics in them were ending up in waterways and landfills.

To minimize the significant impact these tiny lenses can have on the environment, hundreds of optometry clinics across Canada participate in a special program to recycle them and their packaging.

The Bausch+ Lomb Every Contact Matters Recycling Program encourages people to drop off their contacts in a bag at a participating clinic to be wrapped for recycling.

“You recycle plastics and things like that, but I never imagined you could recycle contacts. When I take them out, I put them in the trash, so I just assumed they normally biodegrade and I never thought about it,” Merpaw said.

She’s not alone, said Dr Riyad Khamis of Highbury-Huron Optometry in London.

Khamis said about 20% of contact lens wearers flush them down the toilet or throw them in the trash. His clinic is one of 250 locations in Ontario participating in the recycling program.

“Contact lenses are sometimes overlooked in terms of the recycling aspect, so this is a great opportunity to help the environment,” he said.

More than 290 million contacts end up in landfills each year, according to TerraCycle, a recycling company spearheading the project. They said the totals could increase as the number of daily contact wearers increases.

“Something so small adds up over a period of a year. If you have daily lenses, you get rid of 365 pairs,” said Wendy Sherman, senior account manager at TerraCycle, which also partners with other consumer products companies, retailers and cities for recycling efforts.

“Contact lenses are such a vital item for so many people, and when it’s something so commonplace, it’s often overlooked that it can have an impact on the environment.”

The program, launched two years ago, has already collected one million contact lenses and their packaging.

Ginger Merpaw, left, and Hosan Kablawi plan to be more aware of recycling their contact lenses in an effort to help the environment. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

“It’s for our environment”

Hoson Kablawi has been wearing daily contacts for over 10 years. She was shocked to learn that they can be recycled. She usually throws them in her compost.

“Contacts aren’t going anywhere. Not everyone is comfortable with Lasik surgery, and not everyone wants to wear glasses, especially with masks,” she said. “With contacts, demand will continue to increase and if we can do anything to minimize waste, we should.”

Sherman said recycling has a direct impact on what ends up in landfills.

“This [landfills] This is where a lot of methane is produced, which is much more potent than carbon dioxide, so by eliminating certain aspects of the waste you minimize the impact it can have.”

A national recycling program seeks to minimize the harmful impact contact lenses can have on the environment. One of its Ontario locations is at the Huron-Highbury Optometry Clinic in London. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

The lenses themselves – as well as their blisters, foils and cases – can all be recycled.

Kablawi and Merpaw, along with her daughters, who also wear contacts, will now begin collecting them in a container to drop off at their local optometrists, they said.

“It’s our environment. It’s a place where we live and we need to take care of it, and if that’s another step in the right direction to make our planet healthier, I’m ready to do it,” Merpaw added.

You can find information about the participating optometry clinic closest to you, across Canada, at TerraCycle website

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