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Here's What Happens When You Flush Contact Lenses Down the Toilet (and Why You Shouldn't)

Science is showing that microplastics the size of a sesame seed and smaller are polluting our waterways and threatening aquatic life — and your contact lenses may be contributing to this pollution if you throw them down the sink or in the toilet. While a senior study at Arizona State University found that only 15 or 20 percent of contact lens wearers dispose of them in this way, it’s still a substantial enough number to cause environmental problems in waterways, particularly to bottom feeder fish, because the lenses generally sink to the bottom, LiveScience reports.

It may be surprising to know that something as small as a flexible, disposable contact lens could cause such travesty at the bottom of the ocean, but like a grain of sand, when you combine all the microplastics that are washed into waterways every hour of every day, you end up with a mountain. Microplastics come from a wide range of substances, from large plastic debris that gets broken down into small pieces to tiny pieces of fibers shed from synthetic clothing.

When you wash these products down your drain, these products travel right through wastewater treatment plants, as they're too small to be caught by the filters. Filter-feeding ocean giants, in turn, are exposed to microplastics directly when they filter the water to feed as well as via their food sources. A variety of marine life, from plankton to fish to seabirds are known to consume them, as they can resemble fish eggs and smell like fish, too.

But it doesn’t stop there. We humans are ingesting microplastics too, most often through our tap water. In the U.S. alone, 94 percent of tap water samples were found to contain plastic. And in the food supply, plastics and other man-made debris were found in 33 percent of shellfish sampled in one study.

While littering in the form of single-use plastics like soda bottles, drinking straws and potato chip bags is one cause of this pollution, large quantities of microplastics are also likely transferred to agricultural land via sewage sludge. The solution to this is clear: Since plastic pollution is caused by humans, it’s going to take humans to stop the flow of plastic fibers into our sewers, landfills and ultimately our waterways.

On a global scale, a variety of endeavors are underway to try to curb plastic waste and pollution. From turning plastic waste into liquid fuel to creating synthetic fibers that don’t shed, enterprising entrepreneurs are seeking ways to keep plastics out of the environment.

You can also take a stand on an individual level and make a conscious choice to use less plastic, whether it’s by refusing to purchase anything packaged in plastic or to make it a goal to do things at home that can reduce plastic waste. For example, wash synthetic clothes less frequently and when you do use a gentle cycle to reduce the number of fibers released; consider using products that catch laundry fibers in your washing machine.
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