Kill the planet—recycle contact lenses

This is just a rant about total illiteracy of human behaviour, leading to literally the worst recycling expansion I have seen in my entire career. 

A contact lens weighs about 25 milligrams, so an entire year’s supply of lenses is about two-thirds of a gram. A person’s entire life supply of lenses would weigh less than a small bag of potato chips. 

And some shiny penny thought we should recycle those…

So–what? Do you put that downy featherweight of a lens into an… envelope?1

You are recovering just a few grams of plastic. Sadly you cannot recover all the energy needed to manufacture these amazingly precise high-tech accessories. You can’t recover any of the waste manufactured when oil was drilled to supply plastic feedstocks or the transportation energy. You can’t recover any of the ore that was manufactured into steel, and then was manufactured into diggers and loaders and trucks and trains and ships and planes that brought the lens materials and the packaging materials and the lenses themselves to you in your store. 

All of that has been irretrievably burnt, leaving you with just 25 milligrams per eye. 

Just play out the user behaviour. Are you going to store those tiny lenses in a tiny container in the medicine cabinet? Are you going to put them in a dish? Will they be kept in a box?

And then every January 1, Out with the old and in with the new!—you put your 0.65 grams of into a paper envelope that weighs ten times as much and mail it off!

Is there any way I can say this that doesn’t sound totally batshit? That is because it is next level stupidity.

So you put your lenses into an envelope—6.75 grams of paper, backed up by, again, oil pumping and pipelines and refineries and logging trucks and silted streams beside logging roads and barrels of bleach in the papermaking process?

Clearly that is making the world a worse place. 

You make a trip to a depot, or drop your envelope of lenses in the mail–and a postal truck comes to empty the postbox and carries the sack of mail to a sorting centre (a huge building made of mined minerals and extracted trees, manufactured with ever more machines of ore and energy). On and on it goes. 

Even were we so foolish as to participate in this scheme, what will happen to the plastic from the lenses? We can’t just melt it down and make a milk jug, they are totally different plastics. We are certainly not going to make new lenses out of it.2

So it is quite likely the company that recycles these is simply going to slit the envelope, dump the lenses in the trash, and toss the envelope in the blue bin. (I am not joking, and I have spent much of my career working for zero waste so I am not some right-wing hater spreading propaganda about the failure of the recycling system. It is just that there is no noticeable amount of material or energy that can be recovered from the lenses, so they are, actually, garbage.)

But this contact lens scheme will also recycle packaging! And that packaging is already recyclable in even the most basic blue bin program so…the benefit of that is also probably negative.

We are going to use enormous amounts of new resources to capture a tiny amount of non-recyclable materials. That is stupid. 

And we have burnt the attention required to recycle the lenses. The same amount of attention could have been spent on recycling an aluminum can, which has such a positive recycling benefit that there should be the death penalty for throwing cans in the garbage. Or spend that attention on a 25 milligram contact lens, I mean, whatever.

Here is another way to slice the stats. Almost two and half million people live in Metro Vancouver, and of those about 12% wear contact lenses. That is almost 300,000 people and they throw away 192 kilograms of lenses each year.

192 kilograms!

Meanwhile, Metro Vancouverites throw away about 150,000,000 kilograms of paper every year. This is regular paper that should go in the blue box for recycling. 150,000 tonnes of it, but we should burn our cognitive capacity paying attention to 0.65 grams of contact lens per person?

Please just stop.

This is far from the first time this sort of planet-killing distraction has come about. Here is an article from 2010.
https://slate.com/…/are-glasses-better-for-the-planet-than-…

Here is a high-level look at the life cycle of contact lenses. 
http://www.designlife-cycle.com/soft-contact-lenses/

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{ 6 comments }

  • Clem January 28, 2019, 6:04 pm

    Fun. Incredible what a supposedly sentient being can conjure.

    So here is another shameless plug for the humble soybean… (with the proper lenses you would have seen this coming)… contacts made from soy oil. I only peeked at the web – and it seems this is still not a ‘thing’ – though its been on the mind of some for many years now. But it should be right? Biodegradable plastic eyewear. Throw ’em away and don’t fret over it. Some microbe will eat them, gain a smidgeon of nourishment in the effort, and when said microbe passes the rest of nature should be made whole. Talk about a “life-cycle-assessment”.

    And here comes the “I know a guy” part (also obvious to those who know me)… there is this soybean researcher I know who should be all over this now. He is constantly telling prospective customers of soy products – “Use all you want, we’ll grow more”. Indeed the global soybean industry wastes more soy oil than the contact lens folks would use in a comparable time span.

    I wear glasses; will likely never switch to contact lenses. Am not inclined to work on lenses made from soy; though as a soybean grower here in the States I do contribute (through the soybean check off) to research and marketing efforts for soybean end use ideas. Honestly though – for many of the issues you’ve raised here – I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for soy plastic eyewear. Too many better ideas still waiting for their turn in the sun (too little cognitive juice to go around I suppose).

    Reply
    • Ruben January 29, 2019, 2:19 am

      Yes, you make a great point Clem—it is not just what we should NOT spend time on (recycling contact lenses), but also what we SHOULD spend time on (not making contacts from soy).

      I happen to have a waste composition study handy for Metro Vancouver, where I used to live and work. The study measured over a thousand different materials, but the top 100 materials account for 84% of the garbage by weight.

      Out of those 100, 20 are plastics, and of those 20, ten are plastic film.

      So, should we set about making SoyWrap™?

      I would say yes and no. There are two huge sources of that film. The first is construction, so it is film around pallets of materials or bags of insulation. And the second in industrial, where again it is a convenience for shipping. After those big groups we have plastic bags, from shopping bags to bread bags.

      Many cities are already taking care of the shopping bag problem—with no notable consequence to Western Civilization.

      I think the shipping of goods could probably reduce its waste through more old school knot-tying skills and more reusable containers-—though then we get into trade imbalances and the need to ship empty containers back to the dominant manufacturer.

      But I am loathe to remain wedded to the notion that we can continue to just burn energy and resources to make single use items, even if they are made from soy, and even if that soy oil can make truly biodegradable plastics, and even if we can keep those plastics out of the conventional recycling stream.

      So what SHOULD we make out of soy plastic? Syringes for diabetics? Eyeglass frames? Plastic is a wondrous though terrible material. We should use it with great thoughtfulness.

      Reply
      • Clem January 29, 2019, 1:14 pm

        Plastic is a wondrous though terrible material. We should use it with great thoughtfulness.

        The “terrible” aspect is the forever nature of it, no? A biodegradable option gives us options and… well, flexibility (puns pop out of me like CO2 – sorry). So, yes – we needn’t make tons and tons of soyplastic just because we can. Thoughtfulness is important. Would be nice if ‘thoughtfulness’ were deployed on a more regular basis on nearly everything we imagine. Do I really need a fifth pair of shoes? My winter coat still fits, is still serviceable, but isn’t the appropriate color for the fashionistas this season… so what?

        …though then we get into trade imbalances and the need to ship empty containers back to the dominant manufacturer Containerized shipping has its place – and from where I sit it tends to get plenty of thought (though I would allow, it, like most things, could do with still more thought). I imagine trade imbalances are more the problem than the shipping containers themselves. Trade, it seems to me, is not necessarily evil. Thoughtless materialism hurts us more.

        We recycle industrial wrapping material where I work… though to be fair I’ve never followed the recycling truck to see how this is accomplished. A biodegradable SoyWrap™ would be a next in line solution… not as good as reduce or recycle, but better than killing innocent sea life.

        Reply
        • Ruben January 30, 2019, 3:18 am

          Yes, Plastics Are Forever…

          But there is a terrible aspect to the cheapness of them, as well. They are just so darned easy to use lots of. This year I built a small rope winder and spun two twines together to make a thicker twine for my tomato and cucumbers. Several thousand rotations of my should and arm, and you can really see why people saved string. There is something important about making things worth caring about.

          Biodegradable plastics are another difficult topic. Today most of them just break down into real small pieces of plastic. Some do actually turn into nutrients.

          But then you MUST add another recycling stream and battle with contamination, as biodegradables in the fossil plastic stream is a disaster. Or, is this a biodegradable wrap I can throw on the ground, or is it a fossil wrap I can’t throw on the ground?

          Better to try to find a way without disposables, I think.

          Reply
  • Martin January 28, 2019, 7:57 am

    Yes. I’ve wondered about contact lenses myself as an example of something with a relatively small material footprint compared to its *huge* knowledge footprint. (So thanks for the links)

    I can see why the mistake is made though – they have high salience – they look so high tech and beautiful that *surely* it must be badbadbad to chuck them away? And possibly there’s even a touch of competitive greenness* in haivng the thought (they are so small and tiny, yet *I* am careful enough to think about recycling them).

    *This is not cynical. I am myself competively green.

    Reply
    • Ruben January 28, 2019, 6:08 pm

      Wow, what a lot to think about. Salience, and knowledge footprints.

      It would be interesting to study this aspect of salience; do people focus more on the refined products over the simple—the millions of kilos of paper, or the glass or metal? Or is this also an aspect of our Western Capitalism that centres the individual? You shouldn’t take collective and effective action, just scour your own life for ever more minute things you could distract yourself with. And don’t forget to buy another pack of envelopes so you can return your contact lenses.

      And knowledge footprint is a fun idea. Again our culture venerates novelty, so when I think of knowledge footprints, I think of smartphones—globally networked supercomputers that fit in our pocket. But we could think about agricultural plant spacing and seed hybridization. The vast Controlled Atmosphere Storage warehouses we use to keep apples coddled in inert gases and meticulously controlled temperatures have a knowledge footprint at least decades long. But these things are much less sexy.

      And speaking of apples, we don’t compare them. We might look at the size of our smartphones and think we have replaced the lunchbox-sized portable phones with something so much smaller. And that is true. But we didn’t replace wired telephony, we added to it. Landlines are such simple machines they were made in the 1800s, with 1800s manufacturing technology and 1800s resource extraction capacity.

      So the knowledge footprint of smartphones must include the slaves mining coltan, the vast chip fabricating factories that are kept cleaner than anything used to put men on the moon, and the huge energy resources required for refining materials to such astonishing levels of purity as are required for our modern technology.

      Knowledge clearly did not diminish our consumption, it radically increased it.

      And this reminds me of one of the most mind-blowing things John Michael Greer wrote—truly deeply important to my worldview:

      The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Martin.

      Reply

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