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Contact Lenses Add to Earth's Microplastic Crisis

Oceans
Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Contact lenses may appear harmlessly soft and small, but a big chunk of American users are improperly disposing their used lenses and adding to the planet's microplastic problem, Arizona State University researchers found.

In a survey of 409 wearers, about 1 in 5 responded that they flushed their used lenses down the toilet or sink instead of throwing them in the trash, according to a new study presented at the American Chemical Society's National Meeting and Exposition.


"We found that 15 to 20 percent of contact wearers are flushing the lenses down the sink or toilet," said Charlie Rolsky, an Arizona State University Ph.D. student who is presenting the work, in a press release.

The flushed lenses, which are mostly plastic, turn up at wastewater treatment plants and become part of sewage sludge that gets spread on farmland.

Contact lenses recovered from treated sewage sludge Charles Rolsky

With 45 million contact users in the U.S., the research team estimated 6-10 metric tons of plastic lenses end up in wastewater in the U.S. alone each year.

Rolf Halden, the director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University and one of the authors of the new study, noted at a press conference on Monday that these contacts do not decompose.

"They don't degrade. They don't attenuate but they become smaller. So they create what we know as microplastic pollution, which is contaminating the oceans," he said.

Halden said that fragments have been found in sewage sludge, which can contaminate the soil environment and become ingested by earthworms when it's spread on land.

"We know that earthworms take up soil and can ingest plastics, and then if birds eat the worms it creates a pathway for plastics to enter the food chain," he said. Further, after heavy rains, the plastic bits can trickle out into streams and other waterways and make their way into the ocean.

And it's not just the contact lenses themselves that are an environmental problem. Dailies, weeklies and monthlies are packaged by the billions in polypropylene plastic containers and aluminum lids, and "the unfortunate news is that they do not get recycled very effectively," Halden said. Only one manufacturer, Bausch + Lomb, has a take-back recycling program.

Soft contacts are usually made of a combination of poly(methylmethacrylate), silicones and fluoropolymers, which makes them feel watery and gel-like. Halden suggested that people flick their contacts down the sink or toilet because they do not feel like solid plastic waste.

The researchers hope their study will teach users to stop flushing their contacts. They are also calling on lens manufacturers, at the very least, to label their products with proper disposal instructions.

"Ultimately, we hope that manufacturers will conduct more research on how the lenses impact aquatic life and how fast the lenses degrade in a marine environment," Halden said in the press release.

Angela Lashbrook, who reported about the new study for The Atlantic, admitted to flushing lenses down the toilet herself. She also polled a few of her contact-wearing friends and was surprised to find they all flushed their lenses, too.

Thanks to the study, she and her friends vowed to make the simple switch of throwing used contacts in the trash.

"It's quite possibly the easiest change to my behavior I've ever had to make that could avoid hurting the environment. My contacts-wearing friends, without my scolding, all pledged to do the same," Lashbrook wrote.

Watch here to learn more about the study:

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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