Like many of us, I make a real effort to reduce the amount of plastic waste I create in my daily life. Whether it’s cutting out wet wipes for make-up removal, or carrying my own re-useable cutlery pack and a silicon cup for hot drinks, there are so many easy, positive steps which often save money as well as plastic. I’ve gone further too. In 2007 I set up my own eco movement ‘Say No To Plastic’, campaigning for the plastic bag charge which was finally introduced in Scotland seven years later. Despite the progress we’ve seen, and genuine effort from people across the country, the crisis remains.
Eight million tonnes of plastic enter the sea every year, enough to circle the world four times over. This pollutes our beaches, endangers wildlife, and degrades into microplastics that enter our food chain. Plastic still dominates our lives and it’s clear we all need to do more.
One source of single-use plastic which needs attention is contact lenses. Like the 4.2 million daily users across the UK, I used to love the freedom offered by contacts, particularly when I was a TV presenter having to read the autocue. In the end I switched back to glasses as I was paranoid about the risk of infection and fed up with how fiddly they are and their ridiculous packaging.
What I often overlooked, though, was that every contact lens I used was plastic. I thoughtlessly threw away pair after pair, day after day, without any thought to where they would end up.
A quick Google search lays bare the extent of the problem, with a US study showing that one in five people flush their lenses down the toilet or sink. When you consider that almost 800million contact lenses are used every year in the UK alone, that’s a huge amount of plastic going down the drain and entering our waste-water system.
Just like plastic straws and other single-use plastics, contact lenses are breaking up into microplastics and scourging the world’s oceans. These small and potentially toxic polymers are frequently consumed by fish but are completely indigestible, so remain in the food chain forever, affecting birds, humans and even our pets!
The backlash against plastic straws is a great example of what we can achieve, and shows that it is never too late to make a difference. Like contact lenses, plastic straws had become a seemingly indispensable part of daily life, with their environmental consequences remaining relatively under the radar. But the recent surge in awareness, along with passionate grass-roots campaigning, has rendered incredible results. Global companies have been queueing up to provide biodegradable alternatives, and even the UK Government has pledged to take action.
We need to replicate these achievements with contact lenses, although it will sadly not be as simple as choosing a cardboard alternative. As a starting point, we must never throw lenses down the drain and should aim to recycle them as often as possible. This can only be achieved with the support of the big manufacturers and optical stores to make sure the materials are reused effectively. It is easy to forget, though, especially when removing itchy lenses at the end of a long day, and the recycling process can require a lot of energy and effort.
Meantime, if you’re one of the 4.2 million contact lens wearers in the UK, please don’t ever dispose of your lenses down the loo or put them in the bin. They need to be recycled.
As with all plastic products, our real aim should be to reduce the amount we use in the first place. Any reduction in the use of contact lenses will make a big difference, so it may just be that you choose to wear glasses more often or look at alternatives.
If you're in the UK, please recycle used contact lenses and their packaging at more than 120 Optical Express clinics throughout the UK and Ireland. Please visit http://opticalexpress.com Terracycle offer recycling facilities for contact lenses in many territories. If your local Optometrist doesn't offer a contact lens recycling scheme, why not ask them to start one?