Dr Rayishnee Pillay’s doctoral study in Optometry developed guidelines to assist eye care practitioners with waste disposal and the implementation of sustainable practices in the office space.
The Optometry clinical supervisor and ad hoc lecturer was supervised by Professor Rekha Hansraj and Drs Nishanee Rampersad and Ajay Bissessur.
The study explored the environmental pathway of plastic spectacle and contact lenses to determine their impact on the environment and developed guidelines for their appropriate disposal in a South African context. It investigated the current lens disposal practices of lens wearers and optometrists, greenhouse gas emissions from the supply and distribution of lenses, and thermal and degradation characteristics as well as the environmental biocompatibility of a sample of lenses conducted under controlled simulated environmental conditions.
‘Significant volumes of greenhouse gases were emitted during the distribution of spectacle and contact lenses in South Africa,’ said Pillay. The findings also highlighted that landfill and wastewater disposal of lenses should be avoided. Typical waste associated with ophthalmic lens wear was identified and a successful recycling project was undertaken, indicating the untapped potential of plastic recycling in the optometric sector, and barriers and potential measures to advance plastic lens recycling in South Africa.
Pillay described her PhD journey as ‘a true labour of love’ that resulted in nine manuscripts, five publications and a webinar presentation. ‘I am thrilled that it was so positively received by the examiners and journal reviewers. I would like to continue my research journey and follow through on some ideas from the study as well as investigate a few new ideas.’
According to Pillay, this is the first study to focus on the environmental impact of vision-corrective lenses used by the optometric sector in South Africa and the impact in terms of climate change.
‘Climate change is a global problem that requires urgent joint efforts. The study highlighted the role of optometrists as primary healthcare providers in alleviation strategies,’ she said. ‘My aim is to convert optometrists to the “greener side” by sharing practical information to help them implement sustainable practices in their workplace.’
Pillay lost her father during her study, ‘My dad passed away at the beginning of my study. He was the first person that I presented my protocol to. He gave it his full approval and was confident that my research would be well received. Although I miss him immensely, I know that he was watching over and guiding me throughout this journey.’
She added the study was an inter-disciplinary collaboration between Optometry and Analytical Chemistry. ‘I last studied Chemistry as an undergraduate student; therefore, completing, interpreting and writing up these tests was akin to learning a new language. I had just commenced phase 2 of my study and the chemistry lab work, when COVID-19 reached our shores and an extended national lockdown was enforced. There was limited access to campus and labs. Several postgraduate students were in a similar position and a rotational schedule was arranged to accommodate us; however, this did delay my study.
‘I learnt to use analytical chemistry software and chemistry drawing programmes that I would not normally have been exposed to as an optometrist. This research journey and associated delays reaffirmed that patience, persistence and consistent work reap rewards. Most importantly, the unconditional support of my mum and sister, as well as my supervisors, extended family and friends gave me the impetus to complete the study.’
Pillay is a first-generation university student in her family. ‘My parents made great sacrifices to support my studies and I am immensely grateful to them for their continuous love and encouragement which helped me achieve my goals.’
She is also the first PhD graduate in her family and hopes to be a good role model for the younger generation in her family and her students.
Words: Nombuso Dlamini
Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal