Plastic neutral contact lenses - Insight

Contact lens wearers have become increasingly conscious of their environmental footprint, especially when it comes to keeping plastics out of the ocean. That’s why CooperVision has embarked on a major project to make its one-day contact lenses plastic neutral, offering a new sustainable option for practices.

As a medical device, plastic plays a critical role in the hygienic delivery and sterile protection of contact lens products around the world. But although plastic has a legitimate function, it doesn’t mean manufacturers can ignore the negative impacts that unmanaged plastic waste has on the global community.

Michelle North

“Not all plastic is bad, it’s the waste we need to address,” Ms Michelle North, general manager of CooperVision’s Australia and New Zealand operations, says.

“We see the need to do better and there is no single approach that achieves sustainability, so we need to manage plastic use on many fronts, from our manufacturing and production processes to our plastic neutrality initiative.”

As one of the world’s leading contact lens companies, serving eyecare professionals and lens wearers in more than 130 countries, sustainability has been a key part of CooperVision’s ambition in recent years.

It has developed what it describes as best-in-class manufacturing processes, from award-winning conservation efforts in Puerto Rico, to earning sustainability certifications in Costa Rica, Spain and the UK, to operating with 100% renewable electricity resources at three sites in Rochester, New York.

At its LEED* silver-certified facility in Costa Rica, more than 95% of the materials used in production are recycled – including almost 100% of the plastic generated. Plus, more than 95% of the plant’s electricity comes from renewable sources.

“While these actions are significant, once a contact lens order leaves our production line, we need to critically evaluate how we can address the impact of that lens order to close the loop in our shared global system. And this is what we are now working towards,” North says.

In May, the company announced all CooperVision one-day contact lenses distributed in Australia and New Zealand are now plastic neutral.

The initiative was made possible through a global partnership with Plastic Bank, a social enterprise that builds ethical recycling ecosystems in coastal communities.

Plastic Bank team in Indonesia.

For every box of CooperVision one-day contact lenses distributed in Australia and New Zealand, the company purchases credits that fund the collection and recycling of ocean-bound plastic into the global supply chain, that is equal to the weight of the plastic used in its one-day contact lenses, the blister and the outer carton packaging.

The program is already paying dividends in other parts of the world. One year after CooperVision established the first plastic neutral contact lens in the US with Plastic Bank, the equivalent of nearly 28 million plastic bottles were prevented from polluting the oceans (side-by-side, these bottles would stretch from New York City to Paris).

Because Plastic Bank collectors in the coastal communities receive a premium for the materials they collect, this helps them provide basic family necessities such as groceries, cooking fuel, school fees, and health insurance. The US initiative helped 171 coastal communities in this regard after one year.

“With the expanded scale into other countries this year, including Australia and New Zealand, the program is expected to prevent the equivalent of nearly 90 million plastic bottles from reaching oceans in 2022 – that’s enough plastic to stretch from the North Pole to the South Pole,” North says.

North describes CooperVision’s new plastic neutrality initiative as one of many milestones in the company’s journey to ever-greater sustainability. For now, plastic neutrality is a way the sector can manage waste today while working on the innovation of tomorrow.

“We envision a world where plastics are responsibly used, recovered, and reborn in perpetuity – and we are taking steps to get there,” she says. “Our plastic neutrality initiative is our immediate, measurable first step in a four-step program that ultimately aims to achieve a net zero plastic footprint for CooperVision, while also providing a positive impact to people who may never use our products – or even know about us as a company.”

CooperVision’s four-pronged approach involves:

1. To become plastic neutral through the Plastic Bank partnership

2. To introduce non-virgin material to its entire manufacturing process

3. To ultimately reclaim packaging, including boxes and blister packs for recycling and encourage consumers to proactively return them for recycling

4. To continue to reduce all waste, wherever possible, across the organisation.

“We’re aiming for the full circle, and while we will never eliminate all waste, we will do as much as we possibly can, and we invite contact lens wearers and the rest of the eyecare industry to join us,” North says.

Provide increased value to patients

Across all industries, CooperVision reports consumers are demanding more sustainable products with 78% being more conscious of supporting green/sustainable companies versus five years ago. The company’s own research has found 80% of contact lens wearers would choose a plastic neutral contact lens over a comparable non-plastic neutral lens, assuming both were recommended by their optometrist.

“We also know that 84% of eyecare professionals would choose to prescribe the brand they believe is better for the environment when choosing between two comparable daily disposable brands,” North says.

Five-practice Melbourne independent optometry business Eye Trend shares a long-standing business relationship with CooperVision, which marketing manager Ms Charlotte Ng says is due to an extensive contact lens portfolio that suits a whole range of ages, lifestyles and vision needs.

As society continues to witness the impact of climate change and pollution globally, and patients are generally more eco-conscious, Ng says it has become increasingly important to implement sustainable initiatives into Eye Trend’s business.

“With innovations in sustainable technologies still very much progressing in the optical industry, we are finding it essential that we spend time communicating the various sustainable developments taking place in optics to our patients as they may not have been aware of them before.”

During the past few years, Ng says Eye Trend’s sustainability efforts have included partnering with brands that produce sustainable eyewear, from their packaging to their frames, and offering quality products that last. The business has also partnered with a charity where customers can donate their pre-loved glasses to be gifted to under-privileged communities.

Now, CooperVision’s plastic neutral initiative is helping Eye Trend offer a sustainable solution in the contact lens space.

“It’s really impactful to be able to say to our patients that the same amount of plastic that goes into making their CooperVision one-day contact lenses is collected and recycled from the environment before it reaches the ocean,” she says.

“This speaks volumes for patients who are concerned about the environmental impact of contact lens waste. Particularly for our practice in Burwood Brickworks – a shopping centre that has officially been recognised as the world’s most sustainable shopping centre – having a sustainable contact lens option enables us to provide increased value to our patients and indeed, meet the needs of those who have chosen to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.”

Focus on preferred supplier partners

ProVision’s merchandise manager Mr Tony Jones applauds industry initiatives like CooperVision’s. Over the past year, Australia’s largest independent network has increased its focus on ensuring all preferred supplier partners continue to develop or improve on their current sustainability position.

Tony Jones

“Whether it be an intention to introduce more eco-friendly product or an increased commitment to adopt more sustainable business practices, the goal is to provide ProVision practices with greater confidence that their suppliers are on a shared journey with them,” he says.

“Independent practices particularly have a close relationship with their patient base, and by partnering with suppliers such as CooperVision, they are able to educate their local communities and encourage local actions that support the sustainability journey.”

To further support independent practices in the ProVision network, in 2021 the organisation launched a sustainability webpage for all members called SustainPro, which is designed to help practices build a step-by-step execution strategy from inception through to patient engagement.

“As consumers embrace sustainability more in the years ahead, ProVision practices will have access to a tool that ensures they remain relevant through the eyes of their local community and their patient base,” Jones says.

He hopes sustainable measures – like plastic-neutral one-day contact lenses – continue to spread through the industry.

“In the last two years more and more optical patients have been asking ProVision practitioners if they offer eco-friendly frame choices. This reflects a wider market trend towards responsible purchasing, and it’s been pleasing to see so many suppliers embracing a more sustainable direction, whether that be through product material choice or business practices such as increased recycling and energy reduction, for example,” he says.

*Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a green building certification program developed in the US and used worldwide.

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