Canada and cities from coast to coast have recently taken some encouraging measures to rid the environment of plastic pollution.
The manufacture, import, and sale of products that contain plastic microbeads is now prohibited nationwide. As of January 1, single-use plastic bags are banned in Montreal. Next year, Vancouver will ban plastic straws, foam cups, and containers.
But bags, microbeads, and straws are just some of the more obvious plastics that contaminate our world. A more silent offender is one we wear much closer to our body: contact lenses.
According to research presented last month to the American Chemical Society, contact lenses that are flushed down the toilet or sink often break down into microplastics that pollute our waterways and oceans. They even have the potential to enter the food chain. One man’s vision is another man’s meal, I guess.
The study concluded around 15 to 20 per cent of contact-wearers flushed their lenses down the drain, which is concerning given the trend of moving single-wear contacts. In the United States, it’s estimated that six to 10 metric tons of plastic lenses end up in wastewater every year.
When these plastics enter waterways, they present a big problem to marine life. “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,” explains study co-author Varun Kelkar. These indigestible microplastics are often mistaken for food and “dramatically affect marine animals’ digestive system.”
The research is the first of its kind on the matter and hopes to encourage the addition of labels on packaging describing how to properly dispose of contact lenses. Namely, to place them together with other solid waste.
“Ultimately, we hope that manufacturers will conduct more research on how the lenses impact aquatic life and how fast the lenses degrade in a marine environment,” says co-author Rolf Halden, Ph.D.