Glasses or contacts? The fast fashion problem with contact lenses and glasses we don't see | Fashion trends

Every time contact lens wearers put in a new pair, they create waste: the old pair of contact lenses, the packaging from the new pair, and the saline solution bottle. All this adds up to about a kilogram (2.2 pounds) per year, with slightly less reusable contacts being made. 140 million contact wearers worldwide, that's a lot of trash. (Read more | Is it safe to wear colored contact lenses after LASIK surgery?)

Team Glasses or Team Contact Lenses: Which Product Tops the Green League? (DW/Pond5 Images/IMAGO)

But glasses come with their own set of problems. With half the world's population predicted to need glasses by 2050, deciding what's best for the environment can have a profound effect.

Contact lenses produce microplastics

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According to Charles Rolsky, about 20% of contact wearers in America wash their used lenses down the drain. He is the executive director of the Shaw Institute, an American non-profit organization that studies how pollutants such as plastic affect the environment and humans.

As part of her PhD thesis, Rolski looked at the impact of disposable contact lens waste and found that 2 to 3 billion plastic lenses end up in wastewater in the United States alone.

He continued the trip with contact lenses through a wastewater treatment plant and saw the plant's end product, a nutrient-rich compost called biosolids.

A „fact-telling study” shows that the lenses survive the sewage treatment process. „They are very porous. So, they are prone to contamination by diseases or other types of chemicals, and they degrade into microplastics,” he said.

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Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that travel easily in the environment, especially in water. They can enter the food chain and eventually return to humans.

A separate study in 2023 found that at least 18 types of contact lenses sold in the United States contained high levels of PFAS, otherwise known as forever chemicals. It's unclear whether PFAS directly affect contact lens wearers, but these toxic chemicals can contaminate soil and water and can build up in animals before ending up in humans.

So, are glasses better than contacts?

Hard to say. Very few glass manufacturers in the $150 billion industry publicly report their carbon footprint.

But once in the consumer's hands, glasses don't produce much waste, except for occasional cleaning wipes. Environmental impact mostly occurs during production.

Lenses are usually ground down from large pieces of plastic the size of a hockey puck. Up to 90% of that original tumor is cut away to make the lenses, says Andrew Clarke, science communicator who helped found UK consultancy Net Zero Optics. Manufacturing frames, often made of plastic, creates a similar amount of waste as lenses.

Manufacturing glasses is also a problem because of overproduction, according to Max Jurashek, a scientist at Germany's Braunschweig University of Technology who leads a group researching sustainable factory systems.

„Half of them were probably thrown away before they were sold because it took so long [from manufacture to final sale] And it's a fashionable product and maybe no one is interested in this particular frame,” he said.

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According to Jurashek, the goggles are so much a fashion accessory that many American teams buy a new pair every year. Like other fast fashion items, frames end up on the landscape.

What about recycling glasses and contacts?

Glasses are made using complex materials, including plastics that are difficult to recycle.

„We are a plastics-heavy industry and most of it is derived from fossil fuels,” Clark said. „We're a very international business, with a large amount of our production done in China and the Global East.”

„Every step of that journey is either refining a plastic item or moving a plastic item. And that adds up to a significant carbon footprint very quickly,” he added.

In the UK, there are some schemes that claim to recycle both contact lenses and their packaging and glasses. Contact lenses cannot be recycled with other plastic waste because they are too small and cannot be separated.

When it comes to glasses, specialized recycling programs try to separate the plastics into their component materials before turning them into low-quality products that eventually end up in landfills.

Glass lenses are an alternative to plastic, but they are difficult to recycle due to the special coatings used.

What about fixed glasses?

Frames are often made from acetate, a combination of plant-based materials and fossil fuels. But glass manufacturers now market something called bio-acetate. According to Clark, this is simply greenwashing considering how much plastic it still contains.

„I would compare it to making a burger. You can't get away with saying, 'Oh, this is a vegan burger, 75% of it's vegan,'” he said.

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So, contacts or lenses?

Consideration of waste is one of the most impactful decisions wearers of glasses or contact lenses can make.

Contact wearers should avoid washing lenses in the sink – this contaminates wastewater and the environment with microplastics. If possible, finding a special recycling program can make a difference.

Eyeglass wearers can simply replace their lenses and avoid buying new frames for fashion.

Jurashek's team found that by moving glass production closer to the consumer and using local recycled materials, the environmental impact of glasses could be reduced by 25%.

Part of this success came from small-scale production that reduced overproduction. The team found that customers have a greater connection because the product is local.

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