Environmental Impacts of Eyewear: Are My Glasses and Contacts Eco-Friendly?

As the world trends towards greener lifestyles, it’s important to look at every aspect of our lives and pinpoint new opportunities for sustainability. While our eyewear may not be framed as a major environmental concern, the effects of our glasses and contacts are prominent.

About 75% of adults wear some form of vision-correcting eyewear worldwide. That’s an approximate 5.9 billion pairs of glasses and contacts in the world. Our eyewear generally only lasts us a few years at most, leading to millions of plastic frames ending up in landfills every year. 

While it may seem like a small part of our pursuit of sustainability, changing our eyewear habits can have a big impact.

The Impacts of Eyewear

For many of us, our glasses and contacts are an essential part of our day-to-day lives. Luckily, our eyewear is always readily available in styles that we can pick and choose from. But once our glasses break, wear out, or go out of style, they typically go in the garbage.

In many cases, glasses can be donated to charitable causes to give them to people in need and keep them out of the landfills a little longer. Recycling glasses is a bit more difficult. Frames are typically made out of a specific resin material known as CR39, which is difficult to recycle. As a result, frames must be in-tact and taken to specific recycling plants, instead of tossing them in general recycling bins.

Contact lenses face a similar problem. Made of silicone and polymer gels, contacts can’t be recycled. Inevitably lenses end up in landfills or waterways if you flush them down the drain. Our silicon lenses don’t decompose, adding to the intensive plastic pollution filling our oceans and landscapes. Studies suggest that disposing of contact lenses down the drain is a significant contributor to microplastic pollution. It may not seem like our contacts are a major environmental threat. However, people typically replace them on a daily or weekly basis, making their environmental impacts add up quickly.

Eyewear is such an essential part of life for many people. Therefore, we can easily erase it from our daily habits. Instead, we can look for ways to make our glasses and contacts more sustainable.

Sustainable Solutions

When looking for more sustainable eyewear, our modern world has fortunately opened up new options for getting our eyewear prescriptions. With online marketplaces for our glasses, we have access to thousands of eyewear retailers, many of which offer sustainable options.

Many brands offer vintage or secondhand frames that don’t contribute to further plastic production. Other brands are making plant-based frames out of cotton and sustainably harvested wood, as well as aluminum frames designed to be recycled once the glasses have served their use. 

Look for retailers that utilize the Higg Index—a standardized measurement tool that evaluates the environmental and social impacts of retailers’ supply chains.

For those of us who prefer contacts, opt for long-term contacts that you don’t need to dispose of often. This can dramatically help reduce the compounding plastic waste from daily contacts.

Our prescription eyewear is an integral part of our lives, and an important, often overlooked, aspect of sustainability. Recognizing and addressing the impact that our eyewear has on our planet is important. We can work to improve our personal contributions to plastic waste.

Author: Lena Milton