The UK’s testing capacity for Covid-19 may be helping to avert a further rise in case numbers – but the waste produced means a disposal disaster is looming.
According to government figures, the UK is now testing over 580,000 people per day – or over 4 million people per week – for the Covid-19 virus.
This number includes tests taken at Covid testing centres, door-to-door tests and the quicker lateral flow tests being used in workplaces and schools.
The figure does not include antibody tests, which check if a person has had the virus previously, so the true number of daily test kits used is likely to be much higher.
Rubbish removal experts at Divert.co.uk have raised the alarm over the sheer volume of testing kits being used daily and concerns that the accuracy is as low as 57.5%.
There is a mounting problem for testing centres and facilities: what to do with hundreds of thousands of used tests daily?
As the Covid-19 testing process involves either nasal or throat swabs (or, for antibody testing, blood samples), the kits must then be disposed of as clinical waste, in incinerators.
In the past, individual hospitals often had their own incinerators to dispose of medical waste, but this idea was short-lived as the resulting pollution was a concern, and private contractors have handled the waste since the 1990s.
These contractors are now raising the alarm that their incinerators are at full capacity, and have been for a while, with medical waste quite literally piling up and the instantly recognisable yellow bins overflowing.
In turn, this has angered those in the industry who say they have been warning the government ‘for years’ about the need for increased capacity.
NHS chiefs admitted in 2018 that there was a national capacity issue; growing backlogs of medical waste forced clinical waste management firms to store waste above their permitted allowance.
Waste management firms are once again warning of mounting problems as Covid-19 testing places unexpected stress on the system.
Firms, fearful of repercussions like those seen by waste management businesses who were penalised during the 2018 crisis, are turning away contracts for Covid-19 test centre waste, leading many to call the issue a public health ‘emergency’.
‘It’s important to note that, of course, the huge scale of Covid-19 testing in the United Kingdom is a good thing – it allows us to track the spread of the virus, which is enormously important in tackling the pandemic and allowing us to return to pre-Covid life.
‘However, the sheer number of testing kits being processed each day without adequate disposal capacity to handle the waste generated, combined with the accuracy of some lateral flow tests being as low as 57.5%, makes it a serious cause for concern, and we hope it will spark further conversations in the medical manufacturing industry about the way in which we approach the issue of medical waste.
‘Hundreds of thousands of pieces of single-use plastic are disposed of daily by the medical industry, from syringes to gloves to the Covid test kits, and many of these seem unavoidable.’
Experts in the field such as Tony Capon, director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, are clear that there are long-term steps that could be taken to reduce unnecessary medical waste.
Speaking to the BBC, Tony said: ‘When I was beginning my medical career, it was standard practice for things to be cleaned and autoclaved. Medical equipment was routinely cleaned up, sterilised and reused.’
Others note that changes in practices – such as encouraging handwashing rather than glove use, where appropriate – could help decrease excessive waste.
‘We’d like there to be a greater focus on ensuring sustainability in the healthcare field overall. Firstly, by promoting a more sustainably minded culture where medical workers actively choose to take safe steps to reduce waste, and secondly by minimising waste in the design and manufacturing of single-use items.
‘Creating items which can be safely sterilised and reused could, over time, lead to huge shifts in how we tackle medical waste as a problem – and it is, in its current format, undeniably becoming a problem.’