In the past few months, rapid antigen tests (RATs) have become a hot commodity.Australians have been scouring chemists or queuing for hours at public clinics in order to obtain the kits, all amid reports of “outrageous” price gouging.In mid-January, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt promised 70 million of the kits, which are manufactured overseas, would arrive in the country within the next few months.There is enormous demand for them.The government currently recommends daily RAT screening for all disability and aged care staff in communities with high case numbers.
State governments have also introduced frequent mandatory testing across other industries including construction, food supply and commercial cleaning.So once you get your hands on a RAT and it’s done analysing your saliva or nasal swab, which bin should it go in? The swab, buffer tube and cassette (the part that shows your result) must all go in the rubbish — they can’t be recycled.
But that has nothing to do with the materials they’re made from, explains Dean Whiting, the CEO of Pathology Technology Australia, which is the peak body representing manufacturers and suppliers of the tests.Mr Whiting said anything contaminated with biological material, including blood, urine or faeces, could harbour a contagion or an infectious agent.”Once used, the cassettes now contain a tiny amount of biological material.
And any biological material — any human waste — is potentially infectious and, as such, can’t be recycled under any circumstances,” he said.”So [recycling] is not recommended as far as I know anywhere in the world,” he added.”The chances of it actually being infectious are incredibly low, but we can’t take that chance in the recycling environment.” He said it was recommended that used kits were placed inside a sealed plastic bag before they were put in with the household waste.”If you test positive, it’s not a bad idea to carefully put a drop of household bleach into the buffer tube with the swab and onto the test cartridge — make sure you don’t get it on yourself — to kill off any bacteria and viruses in the solution,” he said.A spokesperson from SUEZ Australia and New Zealand, which provides waste management services to more than 4 million residents and businesses in Australia, said waste from residential kerbside collections usually went to landfill.Staff received training on safe practices around the collection of waste, but collection staff did not open or sort waste from kerbside bins, they said.
Mr Whiting said cardboard packaging materials and any instructions on the paper included in the kits could be recycled.Rapid antigen tests are registered for two different uses in Australia.There are the kits for use at home, and the point-of-care tests, which are used under the supervision of a registered health professional.”[Point-of-care tests] are used in bulk for companies testing people turning up to work, for example,” Mr Whiting said.
“So they get used in their hundreds of thousands around Australia every week on people turning up to essential workplaces such as food distribution warehouses.” Mr Whiting said the point-of-care tests were available in packs of 25 and 50, which meant they required less packaging material than those for home use, where each box might contain between one and seven kits.As with tests processed in pathology laboratories, the RATs administered by health professionals are incinerated.”The large, point-of-care RAT testing operators treat the waste as clinical waste,” he said.”This is bagged and incinerated in most cases.
This is the case for most, if not all, healthcare facilities.” He said the industry was always trying to minimise environmental impacts, and some manufacturers worked with labs to have packaging materials returned.”But there’s only so far you can go when you are working in a regulated environment where, by law, you need to include certain materials with your products, and where you need to dispose of products in a certain way,” he said.Mr Whiting said rapid test results had allowed critical industries, such as food production, to continue operating, and also helped to reduce the community spread of coronavirus.Environmental group Planet Ark said there was not enough data yet on how much plastic from the kits was going to landfill.”Any time we see an increase in the amount of single-use plastic being used we are concerned for the potential impact on landfill and consumer habits,” it said.”If people are doing the right thing and sending these kits to landfill, there is likely a significant amount … the tests themselves are relatively small and light, which would reduce the amount by tonnage.” Without accurate sales data, it is difficult to know how much cardboard packaging is heading to recycling centres.
“The cardboard packaging is unlikely to be a concern, though, as it would likely represent a very small increase in the overall quantity of cardboard being recycled in Australia,” Planet Ark said.The organisation has been contacted by recyclers concerned about people putting RATs in their kerbside recycling bins.
Planet Ark said it was important people followed the rules and did not try to recycle the tests.”Once we can ensure the health and safety of the most vulnerable in our communities, that will be the time to take further action on the waste generated during the pandemic,” it said..