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This Partnership Is Recycling Contact Lenses – 16 Million, In Fact

Sarah Hutcherson headshotWords by Sarah Hutcherson
Energy & Environment
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When we think about what contributes to microplastics in our waterways, plastic bags and single-use packaging come to mind. However, there is another product often overlooked: contact lenses.

Americans use more than 3 billion contact lenses a year. Of those, 45,000 pounds of them end up in our waterways as one out of five Americans flushes them down the toilet – and even more end up in landfills. Both water treatment plants and standard recycling systems cannot process the contact lenses due to their size and malleability, as explained last year in The New York Times.

The good news is that there is a more sustainable option—as in the One by One Recycling Program, in which consumers here in the U.S. can responsibly dispose their contact lenses and packaging such as blister packs and top foils. 

The One by One Recycling Program offers more than 4,000 drop-off locations across the United States for consumers to dispose of their used contact lenses and packaging. The program was born from a partnership between TerraCycle, the U.S. recycling and upcycling company that has long repurposed hard-to-recycle post-consumer waste, and Bausch + Lomb, the 166-year-old eye health products company.

One by One, more contact lenses are ending up in recycled products

Once the consumer disposes his or her lenses and associated packaging in a recycling bin at a participating location, the waste is sent back to TerraCycle. From there, the contact lenses are separated from the blister packs. Then, the contact lenses and plastic components of the blister packs are melted and made into recycled products; the metal layers are recycled separately, according to Terracycle.

Most recently, the One by One Recycling Program contributed to the manufacturing of training materials, including benches, tables and agility ramps, which in turn are donated to the Guide Dog Foundation, a nonprofit that trains guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired.  

“Before the One by One Recycling Program, contact lenses were one of the forgotten waste streams that were often overlooked due to their size," said Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle, in an interview earlier this month with Invision Magazine. “Together, we are helping to preserve our environment and transitioning these materials back into the world in a positive way – it’s a win-win for all.”

Since its inception in 2016, the companies behind the One by One Recycling Program said they have collected 16 million used contact lenses, blister packs and top foils. In an interview with TriplePundit, Bausch Health Companies’ Kristy Marks explained that the program’s leaders plan to scale the number of U.S. drop-off locations through exploring partnerships with retailers outside of the eye-care industry as well as growing the number of participating eye-care professionals.

Consumers are showing more interest in recycling used contacts

Additional companies are launching their own contact lens recycling programs. Johnson & Johnson has launched a recycling program for its branded contacts in the United Kingdom through a different partnership with Terracycle, while CooperVision is testing a similar program in Sweden.

As the daily disposable contact lens market share continues to grow at 9 percent annually—the fastest-growing segment of contact lenses—more consumers are showing an interest in recycling their contact lenses. For example, one study found that 77 percent of British contact lens wearers would recycle their contact lenses if they could.

“Patients are pleased to hear about it during their appointments, especially those who wear daily disposable lenses and have expressed concern about the added waste they create,” said Gina Wesley, O.D., from Complete Eye Care, Medina, MN, in a public statement. “I applaud Bausch + Lomb for leading the way in providing this solution for my practice and patients and helping to minimize the waste these materials generate."

Image credit: Hubble/Unsplash

Sarah Hutcherson headshotSarah Hutcherson

As a recent Bard MBA Sustainability graduate, Sarah is excited to be a contributing writer to TriplePundit to demonstrate how environmentally and socially responsible business is synonymous with stronger returns and a more sustainable world. She is most intrigued with how to foster regenerative food systems, develop inclusive and democratic workplaces and inspire responsible consumption.

Read more stories by Sarah Hutcherson

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