Contact Lens Becomes Latest Pollutant In Wastewater

The latest disposable causing a stir in the wastewater treatment world is the contact lens. Researchers from Arizona State University recently presented their findings at an American Chemical Society event showing that contact lenses flushed down the toilet or washed down the drain can pass through wastewater treatment plants and accumulate in sewage sludge. As sludge is often applied on land for disposal and fertilizing, macro- and microplastics from lenses enter terrestrial ecosystems.

The researchers also concluded that fragmented contact lenses may pass through the wastewater-treatment plant to enter surface waters as microplastics retained in effluent discharged to rivers and streams.

Considering that roughly 45 million people in the U.S. alone wear contact lenses, the study found that 15-20 percent of lens-wearers flush used lenses down the sink or toilet, amounting to 1.8 – 3.36 billion lenses flushed per year. One problem is that contact lenses aren’t recyclable. They are too small to be processed in traditional plastics recycling plants and therefore are disposed of as people think best.

There’s nothing new about plastic pollution news.

South Africa is considering banning microbeads from health and beauty products following similar bans in the U.K. and U.S. And in 2015, the now infamous and viral YouTube video of a marine biologist removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril brought attention to the devastating effects plastic pollution can have on the environment.

And it’s not just plastics. Over the last decade, much has been written about the “flushable” moniker given to flushable wipes. Other products that aren’t easily screened out at wastewater treatment plants include dental floss, cotton swabs and condoms.


Image credit: “contact lens,” Thorsten Hartmann © 2013

With so many disposables being ignorantly flushed down the drain, how do you educate the consumer about the hidden problems they are creating? The Disposable Wipes Toolkit published by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is a step in the right direction. As the MPCA acknowledge, although the toolkit focuses on disposable wipes, the strategies can be applied to pharmaceuticals, plastics and anything else that shouldn’t be flushed.

The toolkit provides the sewage authority with a quick lesson in communication basics before providing a useful portfolio of videos, news article templates, graphics, social media tips and more. Check out the Clog Mascot section. With Halloween just around the corner, you may have just found your outfit!