There has been a lighthearted debate about plastic straws this summer as cities begin banning their use. Seattle became the first major US city to ban distribution by food services. Other major cities like New York are on track to follow Seattle’s lead. Santa Barbara, California went so far as to authorize hefty fines and possible jail sentences, creating a slew of online memes about straw smuggling. Like most plastics in our disposable society, straws end up being thrown away, ending up in landfills and our waterways. Straws make up some 2,000 tons of the plastic waste now polluting our oceans. Now, that is only a fraction of the 9 million tons of plastic waste polluting our waterways, but it is still a contributing factor. Americans use some 500 millions disposable straws a day.
Some companies like Starbucks have committed to eliminating plastic straws from their 28,000 company stores by 2020 by making a starless lid. The problem here is the plastic lids they are considering using add between .32 and .88 grams of plastic to the lid pretty much cancel out the .44 grams of weight from a separate plastic straw. While we applaud the intentions of Starbucks and the communities who are voting to ban disposable plastic like straws, these solutions are but drops in the proverbial bucket. Case in point, our own industry….contact lenses.
45 million American are regularly placing tiny slices of plastic into their eyes, voluntarily. Those pieces of plastic are contact lenses. As we all know, those pieces of plastic are not be used for any long period of time. Some should be replaced monthly, some weekly, many daily. Disposable contact lenses are adding up to be a big environmental problem. According to the findings, presented recently at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, anywhere from six to 10 tons of plastic lenses end up in United States wastewater annually. This doesn’t count the thousands of tons of lenses that are sitting in our nation’s landfills. If you remember the straw example from the first paragraph, you can see that contact lens pollution eclipses the problems posed by disposable straws. Yet no one is contemplating outlawing disposable contact lenses…not yet anyway.
The way wastewater is treated in the United States the plastic waste from contact lenses, straws, and other plastics ends up contributing to microplastic pollution, which has been proven is making its way in the food chain. According to the study, it turns out almost 20% of people flush their used contact lenses down the toilet or sink. These used contact lenses become weakened when they are mixed together with the microbes in wastewater and eventually become tony granules of plastic that can’t be filtered by today’s wastewater systems. Since contact lenses are denser than water and end up sinking to the bottom of aquatic zones where they are eventually gobbled up by bottom feeders and from there spread up the food chain. It is estimated that some 8 trillion microbeads of plastic pollute U.S. waterways daily.
While companies like Bausch + Lomb should be congratulated for starting recycling programs, this is just a drop in the proverbial bucket of what can and should be done. Eye care professionals who sell contact lenses should be instituting their own recycling programs and education programs. It’s not only a responsible thing to do for our planet, but a wonderful marketing opportunity to bring patients and customers back in your office on a regular basis to see what’s new. Eliminating contact lens waste from our world’s waterways won’t eliminate the plastic waste tsunami, but we as eye care professional can point to our profession as part of the solution instead of being pointed to as part of the problem.