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Those tiny contact lenses can create a big waste problem. Here's a way to focus on changing that

Instead of flushing old contact lenses down the toilet or throwing them in the garbage, you can now drop them off at hundreds of optometry clinics across Canada as part of a program that focuses on getting contacts and their packaging recycled.

Over 290 million contacts end up in Canadian landfills yearly, recycling company says

Dr. Riyad Khamis of Huron-Highbury Optometry in London, Ont., says contact lenses are often overlooked from a recycling aspect. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

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Ginger Merpaw of London, Ont., has been wearing contact lenses for nearly 40 years and had no idea that micro plastics from them end up in waterways and landfills. 

To minimize the big impact that these tiny lenses can have on the environment, hundreds of optometry clinics across Canada are taking part in a special program that aims to get them and their packaging recycled.

The Bausch+ Lomb Every Contact Counts Recycling Program encourages people to drop off their contacts in a bag to a participating clinic for them to be packaged for recycling.

"You recycle plastics and things like that but I never guessed you could recycle contacts. When I take them out I put them in the garbage can, so I just assumed that they biodegrade normally and never thought anything of it," Merpaw said. 

She's not the only one, said Dr. Riyad Khamis of Highbury-Huron Optometry in London.

Khamis said about 20 per cent of lens wearers either flush them down the toilet or throw them in the trash. His clinic is one of 250 locations in Ontario participating in the recycling program.

"Contact lenses are sometimes overlooked in terms of a recycling aspect, so this is a great opportunity to help the environment," he said. 

Over 290 million contacts end up in landfills every year, according to TerraCycle, a recycling company leading the project. They said the totals could rise as the number of daily contact wearers increases. 

"Something so small adds up over the span of a year. If you have daily lenses, you are disposing of 365 pairs," said Wendy Sherman, senior accounts manager with TerraCycle, which also partners with other consumer product companies, retailers and cities for recycling efforts.

"Contact lenses are such a vital part to many people, and when it's something that's so routine, you oftentimes forget that this can have an impact on the environment."

The program, which launched two years ago, has already collected one million contact lenses and their packaging.

Ginger Merpaw, left, and Hosan Kablawi plan to be more conscious of recycling their contact lenses in an effort to help the environment. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

'It's for our environment'

Hoson Kablawi has worn daily contacts for more than 10 years. She was shocked to hear they can be recycled. She usually disposes of them in her compost.

"Contacts aren't going anywhere. Not everyone's comfortable getting Lasik surgery, and not everyone wants to wear glasses, especially with masks," she said. "With contacts, the demand will keep going up and if we can do something about minimizing the waste, we should."

Sherman said recycling directly impacts what ends up in landfills. 

"This [landfills] is where lots of methane is produced, which is a lot more potent than carbon dioxide, so by eliminating some aspects of waste, you're minimizing the impact it can have."

A national recycling program looks to minimize the harmful impact that contact lenses can have on the environment. One of its Ontario locations is at the Huron-Highbury Optometry clinic in London. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

The lenses themselves — along with their blister packs, foils, and cases — can all be recycled.

Both Kablawi and Merpaw, along with her daughters, who also wear contacts, will now start gathering them up in a container to drop them off to their local optometrists, they said. 

"It's our environment. It's a place where we live and we have to take care of it, and if this is one more step in the right direction toward making our planet healthier, I'm willing to do that," Merpaw added.

Information on the closest participating optometry clinic to you, throughout Canada, can be found on TerraCycle's website

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