An eye-opening idea: Seattle Aquarium volunteer tackles single-use contact lenses

Jacquelyn Simmons holding a bag of recycled contact lenses
Jacquelyn Simmons at the Columbia Vision Center


“Daily disposable contact lenses crate a lot of waste,” says Aquarium volunteer Jacquelyn Simmons. She has, if you’ll pardon the pun, a clear view of that waste: When she’s not volunteering at the Aquarium, Jacquelyn works as a patient coordinator at the Columbia Vision Center optometry office in Seattle—“It’s another way to enjoy biology!” she laughs.

“Over 60 percent of wearers at our clinic use the dailies,” she says, “And that’s pretty representative of the market in general.” The packaging also poses a problem: each lens comes in a plastic blister pack topped with foil—and, while clean foil is recyclable through Seattle Public Utilities, the tiny pieces attached to the blister packs are not (“I checked,” notes Jacquelyn).

Jacquelyn’s favorite spot to volunteer at the Aquarium is the piling in the Life on the Edge exhibit, where she—not surprisingly—especially enjoys pointing out “cool scallop eyes” to curious kids and adults. “I love our tide pool animals and all of our marine neighbors,” she says, “And I hate to think about plastic pollution piling up in the Sound. I wanted to do what I could to help change that.”

So Jacquelyn took action. Through a fellow volunteer, she learned about a company called TerraCycle, which partners with individuals and businesses across 20 different countries to collect and recycle waste that would otherwise be headed for the landfill.

Jacquelyn contacted TerraCycle and, in short order, had a collection box not only for the lenses, but their packaging as well. She promoted the program in her clinic’s June 2018 patient e-newsletter and the box slowly began to fill with lenses and packaging used within the clinic itself and by its patients—as well as by non-patients who learned of the program through friends or colleagues and wanted to participate. All comers are welcome to recycle their lenses and packaging, whether they’re patients or not.

“We encourage people to set everything aside in a small container at home and bring it to us when it’s full,” Jacquelyn says. “TerraCycle sorts all the different pieces, so people can toss everything, the lenses as well as the packaging, in a single place.”

When the combined weight of the materials reaches 10 pounds, the box can be sent to TerraCycle. The company separates the foil from the blister packs and sterilizes the lenses before they’re melted down. All materials are reused, upcycled or recycled—TerraCycle promises its customers that their waste will never go to the landfill or be incinerated.

In September, just a few months after launching the program, Jacquelyn had reached the 10-pound mark—impressive when you consider how lightweight these products and their packaging are! The second box is filling even more quickly than the first, and Jacquelyn is continuing to spread the word. “I’m hoping if you’re buying a three-month supply of contacts from us, we’re going to get that three-month supply back,” she says. She’s also hoping for a ripple effect: “I’d like to see more options for medical waste in our city—in the optometry industry, and in general,” she says.

Look for Jacquelyn at the Aquarium during her regular Sunday shifts, and thank her for exemplifying our mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment!

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