Tackling global plastic waste…with chewing gum and old fridge parts

A Heriot-Watt University academic explores new materials for sustainable mass production of LFTs.

Discarded chewing gum, collected from UK streets, has been used to produce prototype lateral flow tests (LFTs) with the aim of cutting medical waste across the world.

Working with an innovative English moulding company, Professor Maïwenn Kersaudy-Kerhoas, a professor in microfluidic engineering at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, has produced five devices made from a range of emerging plastic materials as part of her work to make the healthcare industry more sustainable.

In addition to “post-consumer” chewing gum (Gum-tec) the team has also developed LFTs using four other sustainably derived plastics including old fridge parts made from High Impact Polystyrenes (HIPs) which are 100% recyclable plastic.

It is estimated there are over four billion lateral flow tests manufactured annually and the market is set to grow from $43 billion in 2022 to $72bn by the end of 2024. Around 16,000 tonnes of plastics are produced globally for rapid testing every year with an average test containing 10-15g of single-use virgin plastic.  Because of issues due to sorting and potential contamination, very few of the plastics used in medical testing are recycled and most of it is sent to incineration or landfill.

The three-remaining prototype LFTs are made from Limex, a material derived from limestone with 50-80% calcium carbonate in the final product; Terralene, bio-compounds based on polyethylene (PE) made from renewable raw materials; and Bio-flex, a biodegradable and compostable type of plastic.

LFTs entered the public consciousness during the Covid pandemic but they are used to identify a range of illnesses and conditions including Strep A, Pre-eclampsia, pregnancy, and mosquito-borne diseases such as Malaria or Dengue Fever. Together with masks, they have been the visible part of the growing medical waste issue.

Professor Kersaudy-Kerhoas explained, “If we can make LFTs 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.

“Sustainable plastics are not the only way, 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 LFTs.”

The project is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Anyone interested in collaborating with the new Health and Care Technologies global research institute at Heriot-Watt University can contact GRID@hw.ac.uk.


Previous articleNew Centre for Doctoral Training in Green Industrial Futures
Next articleKebony: carving out the future for sustainable timber