Eco-Friendly Ophthalmology: How Can We Green the Vision and Eyewear Industry?

Eyeglasses and contact lenses are a fact of life for many, and nobody chooses to be born with or develop vision problems. That means, with sustainability taking hold in every industry, it’s time to ask whether there are environmentally friendlier alternatives to disposable lenses and cheap plastic eyeglass frames.

Eco-Friendly Ophthalmology
Credit: Engin Akyurt, Pexels

We know about plastic microbeads getting the kibosh in cosmetics and the island-sized garbage patches floating at sea. To what extent does the modern eyewear industry contribute to environmental problems? Are there realistic alternatives?

What’s the Problem with Contact Lenses?

Few of us predicted the outsized impact that tiny plastic beads in body scrubs would have on the environment. We know now that just one microbead, if it finds its way into a waterway, can be a million times more toxic than the surrounding water. Microbeads sequester industrial pollutants, including flame retardants, within water sources.

This is linked with cancer, immune deficiency and compromised cell health in humans. It also poses entanglement and digestive risks for marine wildlife. Some 25% of the fish sold to Californians have plastic in their guts. Scientists estimate that 90% of all seabirds in the world have ingested plastics. Around 100,000 marine animals die each year due to plastic pollution.

So how do contact lenses fit into this?

A study of the U.S. eyewear market published by the American Chemical Society indicates that up to 20% of contact lens wearers flush their lenses directly down the toilet or sink when they’re through with them. This is a potentially substantial amount of plastic entering the water table, considering that 45 million Americans use contact lenses regularly.

Once these lenses go down the drain, they pose risks to human infrastructure as well as marine life. The researchers behind the aforementioned study found that the microbes in wastewater treatment plants “weaken the bonds in the plastic polymers” of contact lenses. That sounds like a good thing, but it’s not — it means these microbes are actively manufacturing microplastics right before our eyes from larger pieces, including contacts.

If the lenses end up “in the wild” in another water source, they tend to sink, since they’re denser than water. This poses a risk to the health of bottom feeders, which are essential to the balance and functionality of aquatic environments. Bottom feeders even help keep millions of tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year.

If 45 million Americans flush their contact lenses as a matter of habit, it means they’re adding up to 3.36 billion lenses and up to 23 tons of plastic waste to the environment each year.

That’s a lot of waste — but is it avoidable? Scientists are working on soy-based contact lenses that biodegrade much more rapidly. However, we’re still waiting for the technology to come of age and become widely available.

Reducing the Ecological Impact of Eyewear

Johnson & Johnson is no stranger to bad optics, so to speak. In the U.K., the company is making moves by putting together a recycling program for contact lens wearers. This is in response to findings that 77% of the country’s nearly 4 million contact lens customers are willing to recycle their lenses. Until recently, there were no convenient options for doing so.

Individual companies are finding ways to reduce the amount of energy it takes to manufacture other eyewear products, too, including eyeglass frames and lenses, in addition to contacts.

Companies can also switch to recycled packaging materials, making shipping more efficient. They can also use energy-efficient technologies in their factories.

There’s even talk of efforts to 3D-print bespoke eyewear products for customers and reduce the distance products have to travel. The result would be “almost a zero-kilometer product.”

People typically consider several factors when picking frames, including shape, color and how they fit with their face shape and their shade of hair. Now, consumers are adding eco-friendliness of the material to that list!

That’s where alternative frame materials come into play. These include:

  • Wood: Post-consumer wood reclaimed from other sources is a popular choice. Wood is also nonallergenic, and each piece is stylistically unique due to the wood-grain patterning.
  • Bamboo and cork: Bamboo is plentiful worldwide and grows rapidly in a variety of conditions. It’s also lightweight but still strong while maintaining its flexibility. Cork is a reasonably sustainable material too, but it doesn’t grow as fast as bamboo.
  • Recycled metals: Post-consumer aluminum is a popular choice for those who prefer metal eyeglass frames.
  • Castor oil derivatives: Castor oil is a vegetable-derived alternative to petroleum-based plastic products.
  • Bonding agents made from plants: Again, this presents a welcome alternative to products derived from oil.

There’s another question here: Apart from voting with our wallets when looking for a new contact lens or eyeglass provider, what else can consumers do?

Making a Change at Home

Wearers of eyeglasses have several charities at their disposal for recycling used pairs of glasses. These include Lions Club International and New Eyes for the Needy.

For unopened packages of contact lenses and solution, there’s MADRE — a New York-based charity focused on women’s rights. OneSight even gladly accepts broken eyeglasses and passes them along for recycling.

Not every eyeglass product that purports to be sustainable actually is. Acetate eyeglass frames make this claim because the bulk of the material comes from tree pulp. However, acetic acid and other additives make these products toxic to the environment and even to humans in the right conditions.

There are some guidelines for plasticizer-free acetate, but companies must choose to adhere to them and consumers must know what to look for. Shoppers can also go out of their way to find frames made from recycled aluminum.

Ultimately, nobody asks to have vision problems. Ideally, the burden of change shouldn’t fall on the consumer in the first place — not when just a handful of companies contribute the vast majority of carbon emissions and waste in the world. However, until change happens industry-wide, we have to be choosy about which manufacturers to support — as well as what we do with our belongings once they outlive their usefulness.