Our oceans are filled with plastic, and as it continue to worsen and impact the environment and animals in it, people are learning ways to be more sustainable. One of the most recent warnings? Contact lenses being flushed down the toilet.
Scientists are giving a warning to the 45 million people who wear contact lenses in the United States: don’t flush them!
Recent research was presented by authors from Arizona State University, at the meeting for the American Chemical Society in Boston. Said research shows that the current wastewater treatment facilities cannot filter out the 1.8 to 3.3 billion contact lenses that are flushed down the toilet every year.
Charles Rolsky, lead author of the study, said this translates to “about 20 to 23 metric tons of wastewater-borne plastics annually.”
Researchers interviewed waste treatment employees, who confirmed that they can see lenses in the wastewater. Director of ASU’s Center for Environmental Health Engineering Rolf Haden explained that although the plastic particles might be small, microplastics are anything but a small issue:
“It sounds like a very small problem, because the lenses themselves are tiny, but they come by the billions.”
Flushing contact lenses is contributing to polluting oceans with even more plastic, and in turn, harming animals. But, it affects a lot more than animals and our waterways: these lenses can end up on our dinner plates.
Up to 51 trillion microplastics, weighing a whopping 236,000 tons, are floating in the ocean, making them a massive source of pollution. Microplastics end up being ingested by organisms that live in the ocean, including fish, and studies have shown that this sometimes means the fish we eat are filled with plastic.
Varun Kelkar, co-author of this study, explained how microplastics form:
“We found that there were noticeable changes in the bonds of the contact lenses after long-term treatment with the plant’s microbes. When the plastic loses some of its structural strength, it will break down physically. This leads to smaller plastic particles which would ultimately lead to the formation of microplastics.”
How many people are tossing their used lenses in the toilet? About one in five.
Did you know that in every year 200,000kg worth of plastic waste is generated from contact lenses in the US alone?
— UN Environment (@UNEnvironment) August 20, 2018
Some people were shocked, and confused, that people were doing this in the first place:
Halden pointed out that although these lenses feel like nothing, there is no easy way of disposing them:
“We have created an almost immortal material. It does not go away. It does not biodegrade.”
But unlike plastic straws, researchers recognize that contact lenses are an essential and irreplacable part of people’s everyday lives. They reccomend tossing used lenses in the trash can – not the toilet or the sink.
— Kelsey (@_knd27) August 20, 2018
I always throw mine out. I never even thought about flushing them
— Patti (@Patti1120) August 20, 2018
Why would anybody do that?
— Beverly Jennings (@Beverly71731601) August 20, 2018
Why don’t they throw them in the garbage can ?
— Angela (@asl812) August 20, 2018
Others pointed out that treating a toilet as a garbage can for anything other than what it is meant for can be harmful to the environment:
Similar warnings have been issued for flushing feminine products.
GeezLouise! My Dad taught us that the ONLY things that ever go in the Toilet are what comes out of you and the Toilet Paper that you use! If you have a Septic System you are cruising for a megabuck bruising when it backs up!
— lisa witham (@cheezwitham) August 21, 2018
Why do people treat toilets as waste-disposal bins, anyhow? Makes water reclamation way more difficult and expensive.
— Clive Simpkins (@clivesimpkins) August 21, 2018
Those who were flushing their lenses pledged to stop:
Rolsky is hoping this prompts people to re-evaluate how they dispose of their plastic.
I'm stopping as of right now
— Mikey (@mikenkosi) August 20, 2018
Oh crap, I flush mine every day. Won't do that anymore
— Michelle Hairston (@hairmich42) August 21, 2018
I always did, but won’t ever again
— Anthony (@TeeDoc) August 21, 2018
Lesson learned, fellow contact lensers: no more flushing used lenses! There is already enough plastic in the ocean, no need to make it worse.