How long does it take for contact lenses to decompose?

September 7, 2023
min read

Short answer

The decomposition time of contact lenses can vary depending on the type and brand of the lens. However, most soft contact lenses take approximately 1-5 years to decompose in a landfill.


Contact lenses are commonly made from a combination of plastic polymers, such as silicone hydrogel or methacrylate, which are designed to be soft, flexible, and breathable. However, these materials are not biodegradable, meaning they do not break down easily in the environment. Over time, contact lenses can undergo a process called photodegradation, where exposure to light and oxygen causes the plastic to slowly break down. This process releases small microplastic particles into the environment, contributing to the growing problem of plastic pollution.

When contact lenses decompose, they can release harmful chemicals into the environment. For instance, some contact lenses contain additives such as UV blocking agents or moisture-retaining substances. When these lenses break down, these chemicals can be released into the surrounding water bodies, potentially affecting aquatic life and the overall ecosystem. Additionally, the decomposition process can also lead to the formation of microplastics, which are tiny particles smaller than 5mm. These microplastics can be easily ingested by animals, causing various health issues and eventually making their way up the food chain, potentially affecting human health as well.

The decomposition of contact lenses is a significant concern due to the sheer volume of lenses that end up in landfills or are improperly disposed of. According to estimates, around 45 million Americans wear contact lenses, and it is estimated that approximately 15-20% of them dispose of them incorrectly, often flushing them down the toilet or throwing them in the trash. Given the small size of contact lenses, they are not filtered out during the wastewater treatment process and can end up in oceans and waterways. To mitigate the environmental impact of contact lens decomposition, it is important to educate individuals on proper disposal methods and for manufacturers to develop more sustainable alternatives that are biodegradable and do not contribute to plastic pollution.

Is it possible to recycle contact lenses?

Intresting facts

  • Contact lenses, made of durable polymers like silicone hydrogel or methacrylate, take a significantly long time to decompose due to their resistance to degradation.
  • When contact lenses are disposed of in the regular trash and end up in a landfill, they can take hundreds of years to decompose fully.
  • As contact lenses break down over time, they release microplastic particles into the environment. These microplastics can end up in soil, water bodies, and even in the digestive systems of animals.
  • Studies have found that wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to effectively filter out microplastics, including those from contact lenses, leading to the contamination of water sources.
  • Some companies have started recycling programs specifically designed for contact lenses, where old lenses can be collected, separated from their packaging, and eventually transformed into other plastic products.

Summary and final thoughts

The decomposition time of contact lenses varies based on the type of lens and the materials used. Generally, conventional soft contact lenses may take several centuries to decompose in a landfill. However, newer biodegradable contact lenses have been developed, which are designed to break down more rapidly when disposed of in waste treatment facilities. These biodegradable lenses may decompose within a few months or years, depending on the specific brand and composition. Considering the environmental impact of conventional contact lenses, it is encouraging to see the emergence of biodegradable alternatives that aim to reduce their long-lasting presence in landfills.

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