contact lens on a man's finger

When you think of plastic pollution, you probably imagine discarded straws. And water bottles. And bags. Some folks are also focusing on something smaller — itty-bitty items millions of us use every day. Contact lenses, when improperly discarded, create contaminating microplastics.

To help prevent microplastic pollution, responsible disposal is important. A free program is in place to help you recycle your used contacts.

Don’t Flush Used Contacts

That’s the advice from a trio of scientists at Arizona State University. They teamed up to study the effects of contact lenses that are washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet.

The study revealed that:

  • 15-20% of contact lens wearers dispose of the lenses down the sink or toilet.
  • With an estimated 45 million people in the United States wearing contacts, about 1.8 billion to 3.36 billion lenses are flushed per year.
  • At wastewater plants, contacts are likely too small to be filtered out and removed.

“The study showed that wastewater plants fragment them into microplastics, which accumulate in sewage sludge. For about every two pounds of wastewater sludge, a pair of contact lenses typically can be found,” according to an article about the project on Arizona State University’s website. Because sewage sludge is regularly deposited on the land for soil conditioning, these microplastics have a short pathway to pollute our ecosystems.

Tossing used lenses in regular trash is preferable to flushing, explains Charles Rolsky, a Ph.D. candidate who worked on the research project. But it’s even better to recycle them.

ONE by ONE contact lens recycling collection box
Participating optical offices offer recycling bins for used contact lenses. Photo: Bausch & Lomb

ONE by ONE Recycling Program

Bausch & Lomb, which sells contact lenses, partnered with TerraCycle, which recycles hard-to-recycle items, to launch the free Bausch + Lomb ONE by ONE Recycling Program. The recycling initiative accepts used lenses from any brand. It also accepts empty blister packs and foils, which most curbside recycling programs are not equipped to process.

Since it was established in 2016, ONE by ONE has collected more than 41 million units of used contact lenses, top foils, and blister packs to recycle.

“Once collected, the contact lenses and blister packs are cleaned and separated by material type,” says TerraCycle. “The materials are recycled into raw formats that manufacturers use to make new products.”

Contact Lens Recycling Information

You can drop off your used lenses, blister packs, and top foils at participating optical offices. Use TerraCycle’s interactive map to search for locations near you. For the most energy-efficient approach, drop off these items when you see your vision professional or at a participating eye care office in your area. If your vision professional isn’t a drop-off point yet, suggest that they sign up on TerraCycle.

To reduce packaging and shipping waste, this program is available through drop-off only. Drop-offs are “more environmentally friendly overall as it saves packaging,” according to a Bausch & Lomb representative. When dropping off your contact lenses and blister packs, do not include paperboard or cardboard packaging. You can usually include these materials with your other clean household paper recycling.

These links will help you get started:

Originally published on January 16, 2020, this article was updated in June 2023.

By Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.