Each time you sit down to do a COVID-19 rapid test at home, you’re sending 10 grams of plastic to the landfill. Considering the Biden administration purchased 1 billion of these tests in January, that’s a mind-boggling 11,000 tons of plastic waste in the U.S alone. And it’s not even counting the tens of millions of other rapid tests purchased every week.
That at-home tests are made of single-use plastic isn’t all that surprising. When they were first authorized by the Food and Drug Administration in November 2020, the goal was to make them in a cost-effective manner and roll them out as fast as possible. But it’s been more than two years since the start of the pandemic, and designers are beginning to think about alternative materials.
One London-based studio has proposed a rapid test that is biodegradable and recyclable—right down to the packaging. Made of recyclable paper pulp, the test kit was wildly reinvented to be more user-friendly and accessible, too: no more verbose leaflets, painful nose swabs, and faint pink lines that can’t be deciphered by low-vision people. Dubbed Eco-Flo, the test kit is just a concept without a prototype for now, but manufacturers should take note. The number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is growing again, and at-home testing is here to stay. We may as well make it more sustainable and more inclusive.
Eco-Flo was designed by industrial design studio Morrama. Jo Barnard, the studio’s founder and creative director, says the test could be made using existing manufacturing processes, like a wet-pressing technique Morrama used in 2020 to make a deodorant entirely of bamboo pulp. She says that a relatively new technology, which allows for the paper to be molded without being wetted, could make the process faster and at a cost equivalent to PET plastic, which is what rapid tests are made of today. Once the kit is ready, instructions in various languages could be printed straight onto the surface.
The kit comes packaged in a biodegradable sachet, and the test itself consists of a single piece that flips open like a mini-book. (By comparison, current rapid tests come in three parts, and many of them are individually wrapped in plastic.) Unlike conventional tests, which require users to swab their nose, stir the swab into a solution, squeeze a few drops into a tiny collection area, then wait for results to come in the shape of a faint pink line that’s impossible to decipher by low-vision people, Eco-Flo was designed to make testing simple and intuitive.
For starters, no more nose swabs. Instead, the designers want to use a developing technology that tests for the virus using saliva samples. Research is already showing that saliva-based testing may be more effective at detecting the Omicron variant, though the so-called PASPORT testing isn’t expected to be available to consumers until the end of 2022. As a result, the designers haven’t been able to make a working prototype just yet.
To use the test, you would flip the kit open and spit into a “saliva dish” that’s much bigger than the tiny hole on conventional rapid sticks. Then, you’d close the kit and press the sample down onto the absorbent pad. After 15 minutes, the results will be announced via two checkboxes (one to confirm the test was valid, another for the results) that will show a bright red color.
“The idea of making the test strip a bit bigger would allow visible marks to be clearer, and by putting it in a little window, you know where you’re looking,” says Barnard, noting the absurdity of the current system, which uses cryptic initials like C for “control” and T for “test.”
It’s unclear if Eco-Flo will ever hit the market, but if it does, it won’t be anytime soon. For Barnard, however, the project is an opportunity to shift manufacturers’ perspectives and rethink the way testing devices are designed in the future. She says manufacturers should prioritize low-cost tests, but not at the expense of the environment.
“We can’t save people’s lives and simultaneously affect them later [on] with global warming,” she says. “We know these kinds of things happen, so let’s be prepared for them next time, so we can just roll it out.”