Pandemic plastic waste: Designers envision biodegradable COVID-19 tests

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the amount of waste generated by the Covid-19 pandemic is a threat to the environment and human health, calling on manufacturers to use more biodegradable materials and eco-friendly packaging.

According to a paper published in Nature, over half a billion tons of plastic waste were created in the first seven months of the pandemic. 

In 2020 alone, some 1.56 billion face masks found their way into oceans, reported campaign group OceansAsia. The Marine Mammal Center recorded COVID-19 detritus, much of it made from plastics, in the stomachs of seals and dolphins, among other animals.


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As governments prioritized cost-effective tests that could be rapidly mass produced over sustainability, tests now account for a large portion of COVID-19 plastic waste.

Though partially recyclable, George Loumakis, a Lecturer in Energy at the Glasgow Caledonian University, discovered that the NHS test he was supplied contained 10 grams of plastic. A purchase of one billion similar tests, the amount U.S. President Joe Biden ordered in January this year, would lead to 11,000 tons of plastic waste. 

According to a study in the National Library of Medicine, the vast majority of COVID-19 tests are made using polypropylene, a cheap and versatile plastic but one which takes up to 30 years to decompose. 


The ECO-FLO test. /Morrama

The ECO-FLO test. /Morrama

One design studio, London-based Morrama, has created a biodegradable and recyclable concept rapid test. Using recyclable paper pulp and with a focus on user-friendly design and ease of use for disabled people, the ECO-FLO test aims to address the COVID-19 waste problem. 

"At Morrama, we were inspired to create a test kit that doesn't contribute to the amount of plastic ending up in our landfills, so ECO-FLO was born," said the agency's founder and creative director, Jo Barnard.

The swab, test tubes, and their associated packaging have all been eliminated, while it's outer packaging, a biodegradable NatureFlex film, would break down in four to six weeks.

Though only a prototype, amid growing COVID cases in the U.S., the Eco-Flo test may  influence manufacturers and governments concerned with sustainability and protecting the environment. 

(Video animator: James Sandifer)

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