We’ve all seen those insane images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and its 80,000 tons of garbage are a pretty shocking reminder that humans are huge polluters of the ocean. But you might not have realized that even the smallest pieces of plastic, like contact lenses for example, can be a part of the problem.
Research from the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University just found that millions of contact lenses could be landing in U.S. water supplies every year.
The survey conducted by the team included 400 contact lens wearers, and they discovered that between 15 and 20 per cent have flushed their contact lenses down a toilet or a sink in the past. And with 45 million contact lens wearers in the U.S. alone, that’s a lot of contacts ending up in water treatment plants.
Although the research found that lenses do partially break down in those plants, parts of them still remain intact and end up in water supplies, which is dangerous for marine life.
“From past studies, we know that microplastics are able to absorb contaminants at a much higher level than what’s found in the surrounding environment,” Charlie Rolsky, a postdoctoral student involved in the study, told Time. “That presents threats to that particular organism and anything that feeds on it.”
Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center, pointed out that contacts are only a small portion of the plastic waste that ends up in the ocean, and are arguably more important to people than other disposable items like plastic bags or straws. Even so, he and his team still urge contact lens wearers to think about the way they throw out their lenses.
“There’s a lot of plastic still going from our population into the ocean, and it ultimately comes back to us and can harm us,” Halden said. While the researchers also want contact manufacturers to find a way for consumers to easily recycle their products, for now, they recommend throwing them out with solid waste – never send them down the toilet or sink.