In recent months, rapid antigen tests (RATs) have become a rare commodity.
Australians have been browsing chemists or queuing for hours at public clinics to get the kits, all amid reports of “outrageous” price gouging.
In mid-January, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt promised that 70 million kits, made overseas, would arrive in the country in the coming months.
There is a huge demand for them. The government currently recommends daily RAT screening for all disability and elderly care staff in communities with high case numbers.
State governments have also introduced frequent mandatory testing in other sectors, including construction, food supply and commercial cleaning.
So once you get your hands on a RAT and are done analyzing your saliva or nasal swab, which bin should it go in?
Wrap it up and throw it away
The swab, buffer tube, and cassette (the part that shows your result) all have to go in the trash — they can’t be recycled.
But that has nothing to do with the materials they are made from, says Dean Whiting, 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 harbor a contagion or 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 cannot be recycled in any way,” he said. .
“So [recycling] is not recommended, to my knowledge, anywhere in the world,” he added.
“The odds of it actually being infectious are incredibly low, but we can’t take that risk in the recycling environment.”
He said it is recommended that used kits be placed in a sealed plastic bag before disposing of them with household waste.
“If you test positive, it’s not a bad idea to carefully put a drop of bleach in the swab tube with the swab and on the test cartridge – make sure you don’t get any on it – to kill bacteria and viruses in the solution,” he said.
A spokesperson for SUEZ Australia and New Zealand, which provides waste management services to more than 4 million residents and businesses in Australia, said waste from residential curbside collections usually went to discharge.
Staff received training in safe practices around waste collection, but collection staff did not open or sort waste from curbside bins, they said.
What about the packaging?
Mr Whiting said the cardboard packaging materials and any paper instructions included in the kits could be recycled.
Rapid antigen tests are registered for two different uses in Australia. There are home-use kits and point-of-care tests, which are used under the supervision of a licensed healthcare professional.
“[Point-of-care tests] are used in bulk for companies testing people who show up for work, for example,” Mr. Whiting said.
“So they are getting used in the hundreds of thousands across Australia every week to people showing up at essential workplaces such as food distribution warehouses.”
Mr Whiting said the point-of-care tests came in packs of 25 and 50, which meant they required less packaging material than those for home use, where each box could hold between one and seven kits. .
As with tests processed in pathology laboratories, RATs administered by healthcare professionals are incinerated.
“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 is always trying to minimize environmental impacts and some manufacturers are working with labs to have packaging materials returned.
Don’t be put off by RATs
Mr Whiting said the results of the rapid tests have kept critical industries, such as food production, running, and have also helped reduce community spread of the coronavirus.
Environmental group Planet Ark said there was not yet enough data on how much plastic from the kits was going to be buried.
“If people do the right thing and send these kits to landfill, there’s probably a significant amount … the tests themselves are relatively small and light, which would reduce the amount in tonnage.”
Without accurate sales data, it’s hard to know how much cardboard packaging is heading to recycling centers.
“Cardboard packaging is unlikely to be an issue as it would likely represent a very small increase in the overall amount of recycled cardboard in Australia,” Planet Ark said.
The organization has been contacted by recyclers concerned about people putting RATs in their curbside recycling bins.
Planet Ark said it was important for people to follow the rules and not try to recycle tests.
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