Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Eliminating plastic waste on a global scale
Home testing kits, or lateral flow tests, became a ubiquitous presence during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while vital to prevention efforts, lateral flow tests deliver an unwelcome side effect: plastic pollution.
Researchers estimate the UK’s lateral flow testing consumption alone produced enough plastic waste to fill 200,000 bathtubs or 19 Olympic swimming pools. The tests are too small to be sorted by recycling facilities and are often contaminated by samples.
We saw the opportunity to develop a solution and brought together a collective of experts to design and test an alternative to plastic diagnostic test cassettes. Our proof of concept delivered a dry molded fiber-based alternative using Swedish R&D and IP company PulPac’s leading technology. Our proof of concept took inspiration from a cassette design format used widely across the industry.
Working together, we created a platform for the product to be scaled into lower and middle-income countries where diagnostic kits are important in the fight against diseases such as Malaria and HIV.
Beyond reducing plastic pollution, the long-term goal is to use local agricultural waste fibers – that would otherwise be disposed of – in medical testing, effectively upcycling fiber waste. Utilising this waste can provide socio-economic benefits by creating jobs and manufacturing hubs, whilst enabling the distribution of medical devices to where they are most needed.
- Created a multidisciplinary team around the mission to reduce persistent plastic in lower and middle-income countries.
- Developed a fiber-based alternative to plastic lateral flow test cassettes.
- Mapped out long-term planning to use local agricultural waste fibers in countries with limited waste infrastructure.
The perfect partnership to reduce plastic waste
Our goal to develop an alternative to plastic diagnostic test cassettes began when we secured a grant from the Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution (SMEP) Programme. The grant was implemented in partnership with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), its delivery agent SouthSouthNorth, who support national and regional responses to climate change through policy, and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
The SMEP programme aims to generate cutting-edge scientific evidence and improve knowledge on the environmental health and socio-economic impacts of manufacturing in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It also identifies technology-based solutions to address the most pressing environmental health issues associated with manufacturing, promoting pollution control solutions.
We had already collaborated with Swedish R&D and IP company, PulPac, who were behind the innovative Dry Molded Fiber (DMF) technology. Our previous work together included enhancing their technology, developing their IP, advising on product design, and building market demand for their products.
PulPac’s DMF uses renewable pulp and cellulose resources to produce cost-competitive, high-performance packaging, and single-use products. It leaves an 80-90 percent lower CO₂ footprint at the same or lower cost as plastic – resulting in the possibility for a diagnostic test with a significantly reduced environmental footprint.
We also collaborated with a diagnostics company based in the UK with expertise in lateral flow test manufacture. Their objective includes improving the health and wellbeing of underserved populations around the world. So, before the pandemic struck, they were working to expand affordable access to quality diagnostic tests in lower and middle-income markets.
With access to a test cassette design and PulPac’s expertise in the DMF process, we came into the mix. Our applied sciences and engineering experts pulled together a multidisciplinary team to link the consortium’s specialisms and spent time understanding and perfecting the technical design needed to make the diagnostic test function. Together, we produced several prototypes, to demonstrate how the test performed compared to its plastic counterpart.
Anu Solanki, PA Biomaterials expert explained “we had to ask ourselves: what are the key functions of a diagnostic test cassette and how do we replicate design features that are injection molded, in a fiber-based part?” Solanki continued, “As a collective, we were breaking ground in our understanding of the fiber test cassettes, measuring how the tests performed, how parts fit together, and how the test may behave through a supply chain.”
Creating a tangible product through the Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution Programme
Beyond reducing plastic pollution, the long-term goal is to use local agricultural waste fibers in medical testing that would otherwise be disposed of – effectively upcycling fiber waste. Utilising this waste will provide socio-economic benefits by creating jobs and manufacturing hubs, whilst enabling the distribution of medical devices to where they are most needed.
Our collaboration meant that we have collectively advanced our ability to make sustainable devices for lower- and middle-income countries. And PulPac gained further traction in the healthcare sector.
The work follows the launch of our joint initiative with PulPac, The Blister Pack Collective – the world’s first planet-friendly, DMF tablet blister pack. The Blister Pack Collective utilises DMF technology to develop blister packs that eliminate or minimise the use of plastics in over-the-counter prescription drugs and nutraceuticals.
Delivering a local, sustainable, and socially beneficial solution
Collectively, we have aimed to make the entire process, from sourcing materials to the disposal of lateral flow cassettes – more sustainable. We investigated supply chains to explore where local feedstock and agricultural waste could be developed into materials to produce the cassette. Over the course of the work, Kenya became a key market. Here, a sugarcane waste called bagasse proved a promising alternative material. Another type of waste with potential is bamboo.
Using this kind of local agricultural waste whilst creating jobs in communities, means there is no longer a need to ship the cassettes from further afield, further reducing carbon emissions within the supply-chain. Alongside reducing the plastic pollution generated, our partnership will continue to reduce the overall carbon footprint of diagnostic tests.