Necessary Planned Obsolescence
Soft Contact Lenses & Eye Health
A manufacturer, who intentionally designs a product with an artificially limited useful life, that will stop working or become obsolete sooner than it would otherwise, with the sole purpose of increasing the frequency of repeat purchases and keeping the cash flowing in, is recurring to planned obsolescence.
The majority of us can agree that this practice is absolutely not cool and consider it quite unfair. Never mind the amount of waste that results from the throwaway culture that emerges from this consumerist practice.
If you are a contact lens wearer you may have had the temptation — or even succumbed to it — to wear them for longer than the recommended amount of time. Perhaps you decided to use them for 3 months instead of just one, didn’t feel any bad effects or discomfort, and felt great about saving yourself some money. Let’s face it, having good eyesight isn’t always cheap and, honestly, lenses don’t exactly feel “worn out” after the recommended time period of use is over. You probably feel a little cheated by this planned obsolescence, which for sure is just there to increase the profits of contact lens producers and optometrists.
Or is it?
Frequent contact lens replacement is healthier
Planned obsolescence is something that also affects the medical practice and can hide behind “single-use” labels and the like. True, some things shouldn’t be reused because of patient safety, but there are other cases where manufacturers rely on planned obsolescence, at the cost of hospitals, tax payers, and patients*.
It feels like that in the case of contact lenses with their 1 day, 1 month, and 1 year tags. Never mind that they are a cause for microplastic contamination in the oceans when they end up in the water supply. These materials don’t break or degrade easily*.
So your pair isn’t broken, vision isn’t blurry, eyes don’t feel dry, and these materials can last ages; why would anyone replace them so often?
A talk with my father — a seasoned optometrist — uncovered a couple of decades old tale about one client, who arrived with 1-year contact lenses — back then they were more popular apparently — , but had used them for three years instead. When said client took the contacts out they were yellow and with spots of questionable origin.
My instant reaction:
Sounds extreme, but as things stand, patient non-compliance is a thing that most doctors and practitioners face daily; and so do optometrists. A study from 2010 looked at attitudes and compliance among contact lens users, and found that non-compliance comes mostly in the forms of poor hand hygiene (11%), inadequate cleaning of lenses (13%), lens storage cases (61%), and not returning for aftercares (50%).
My father is glad that nowadays soft daily disposable and frequent replacement contacts are much more popular than 1-year ones, because even when 1-day or 1-month lenses are used for more time than recommended, they still get replaced with more frequency, so that extreme situations similar to the aforementioned are avoided, thus preventing subsequent problems on eye health.
Overall a public health gain.
Now, I imagine you, my dear reader, are a very responsible person with high attention to detail, who perfectly cleans and disinfects his/her contacts daily, who by no means should be punished with planned obsolescence and told to replace them so often.
My thoughts exactly. Except…
Studies have compared daily disposable lenses, frequent replacement lenses (2 weeks, 1 month, or 3 months) and daily wear lenses (1 year)**. The general conclusion is that it really doesn’t matter if you have the most perfect cleaning and care regime; given enough time, deposits will form on them. These deposits affect the capacity of the lens material to allow oxygen to reach your eye, which is very harmful. Plus, bacteria are more likely to be found on lenses worn for extended periods of time in comparison to those replaced frequently.
Now sum that up to the prevalence of user non-compliance and you can see why there’s a lot of evidence in favor of daily disposables as the better, healthier option*.
What about the plastic waste?
Regardless of the evident healthiness of daily disposables, throwing away lenses and plastic packaging daily feels awful.
Sadly, as with many plastic medical single use products, patient safety simply comes first. Until safer, more hygienic, reusable contact lens options are available, frequent replacement will remain the standard*. One can only hope better materials emerge in the coming years.
So it is fortunate that contact lens and blister pack recycling programs are available to some extent:
- Here’s the partnership of TerraCycle and ACUVUE in the UK with a network of soft contact lenses and blister packs drop-off locations.
- Here’s the Bausch & Lomb’s partnership with Terracycle in the US.
In places where no recycling program exists, it is important to NOT flush contacts down the toilet or let them get anywhere near the water supply, in order to avoid contributing to microplastic water pollution. The best thing one can do is to simply throw them in the trash.
Meanwhile, the most environmentally friendly option to have good vision is glasses, which don’t produce as much plastic trash*.
I guess I’ll keep on saving for LASIK…