Heriot-Watt University creates lateral flow tests using waste plastics

ACADEMICS at Heriot-Watt University have used discarded chewing gum and other waste plastics to produce prototype lateral flow tests.

The aim is to cut medical waste globally, with professor Maïwenn Kersaudy-Kerhoas, of the university’s school of engineering and physical science, producing five devices made from a range of emerging materials.

In addition to old chewing gum, the team used sustainably derived plastics including old fridge parts made from high impact polystyrenes which are 100% recyclable plastic; Limex, a material derived from limestone with 50-80% calcium carbonate in the final product; Terralene, bio-compounds based on polyethylene made from renewable raw materials; and Bio-flex, a biodegradable and compostable plastic.

Over four billion lateral flow tests are manufactured annually using around 16,000 tonnes of plastics. Sorting and potential contamination issues mean very few are recycled, the university said.

Lateral flow tests entered the public consciousness during the Covid pandemic but they are also used to identify Strep A, Pre-eclampsia, pregnancy, and mosquito-borne diseases. Together with masks, they are a visible part of the growing medical waste challenge.

Professor Maïwenn Kersaudy-Kerhoas, academic co-lead at Heriot-Watt University’s new Global Research Institute in Health & Care Technologies, said, “If we can make lateral flow tests out of sustainable materials and without the use of fossil fuels in their production, we can save between 30 and 80% of carbon emissions that virgin plastic processing produces.

“We’ve now had approval to test these prototypes, making sure they function as well as the existing ones, particularly regarding the flow of liquid on the testing strip. Along with demonstrating feasibility in their practical application, these new devices help to support a wide ranging discussion around healthcare sustainability in general and how we might develop a circular economy through potential changes in procurement and legislation.

“Sustainable plastics are not the only way as there are paper-based solutions in development. But they might take a while to be produced at scale as manufacturers will need significant investment in new production lines. After rigorous scientific, economical, and regulatory investigations, recycled plastics could be used with existing equipment and a quick win for some products like lateral flow tests.”

Sustainability was also factored into the manufacture of the prototype lateral flow tests with the academic team working with English moulding company, Great Central Plastics.

Kiron Phillips, of Great Central Plastics, added, “We take pride in our sustainable manufacturing processes, and we adopt this ethos across all levels of our business. This collaboration highlights our commitment to cutting-edge research and development. By championing sustainable alternatives such as Gum-tec and Limex, we not only mitigate environmental impact but also pioneer a shift in the industry, setting a benchmark for responsible production practices.”