The Tiger Bag in the Room - Katherine Roberts
A rather awkward question came up over Christmas lunch this year, which nobody in our family could answer: "What happens to all the face masks and test kits after use?"
I expect you know the ones I'm talking about, since no doubt you've had similar conversations over the festive break. In our family, Dad alone uses four lateral flow kits every week since he's required to take one every time he visits Mum in her nursing home. I was surprised he took so many, as I always thought you had to pay for them and Dad is of the 'make do and mend' generation, but apparently these amazingly elaborate and well-packaged kits are totally free, and you just go and ask for one at a chemist if you need it... so who actually is paying for them all, I wonder? Brother uses fewer kits, but says he takes a voluntary test before visiting people or going to a party, since apparently that's the socially acceptable thing to do these days... always assuming you have any social life left after nearly two years of enforced isolation and divisive politics in the name of our nation's health. He used three kits during Christmas week. Mum gets tested daily in her nursing home, which is possibly a different test as she had a stroke and cannot do anything for herself, but definitely some kind of clinical waste is produced. I am a self-employed social pariah and used none. So adding up Christmas period for our 'average' family of four, that's 4+3+7+0 = 14 kits used that week alone. Multiply this by the number of families in the UK, and you have a nightmare of waste to get rid of somehow while still protecting the planet... so what do you do with yours? Dad admits he throws his in the bin with his other household waste. The bin is emptied once a fortnight (provided the collection staff are not self-isolating that week) and, from there, it presumably goes to landfill.
Which brings me to the dreaded masks. Dad uses disposable masks, of the sort I see daily thrown in the gutter, floating in on the tide, or hanging in hedgerows. I believe the current advice is still to use a fresh disposable every time you need one? So if you pull it down to breathe (or, dare I mention, sneeze!) between each shop you visit, then that's maybe three or four new masks needed every time you visit town? Possibly more, if you're a shopaholic. Not that people do use that many on a shopping trip, of course, and the fashion in my local town is either to wear your mask under your chin between shops, or hang it from your car rear-view mirror after use to 'dry' (and presumably de-virus, too) before doing your bit for the planet and re-using it the following day. Brother uses a cloth (i.e. 'reusable') mask, and mentioned he gets a sore throat every time he's been wearing it... as he doesn't always boil-wash or otherwise sterilise it between uses, perhaps not totally surprising? Even if he tests negative for every virus under the sun, there are still an awful lot of bacteria out there who just love a damp, warm breeding ground such as a piece of cloth worn across someone's mouth and nose.
But this is not a health blog. So we're back to the big question. What happens to all this potentially hazardous waste? And what is it doing to our planet?
Here is the UK government's current guidance for waste disposal from test centres (updated March 2021 - if you know of a newer version, please tell!)
From this guidance, I understand the outer packaging (of which there a surprising amount for lateral flow tests) is treated just like any other packaging, and either recycled or sent to landfill. So hopefully most of the cardboard finds its way into household recycling bins for collection along with the domestic recycling.
Swabs and vials, however, are classed as chemical waste, and should be disposed of accordingly in either a yellow, white or clear bag, or a yellow-and-black-striped tiger bag (which you can buy on amazon, as well as from medical suppliers). That's what the little clear plastic bags included in your test kit are for, by the way - not for storing food or small toys, as I saw on Twitter the other day! Rather worryingly, there is a 'last resort' option of landfill, when the instructions are NOT to use any such hazardous waste packaging... so how and when does potentially hazardous waste become non-hazardous waste? Really, I'd like to know.
Face masks, gloves, plastic aprons etc. are classed as offensive waste and should also go in a tiger bag. Yet again, there seems to be a 'last resort' of landfill.
Weirdly, however, the waste from home test kits and the face masks you dispose of at home must be slightly different, as this more general government advice for waste disposal suggests. From this (later, updated July 2021) advice, it seems perfectly acceptable for both to go into the black bag with your general household waste, and from there to landfill. Although if your mask etc. is potentially infected, it seems you should double-bag and 'store' it for 72 hours before putting it into your black bag with the rest of your rubbish... quite where you are safely meant to store a dangerous virus capable of shutting down the entire world for 2 years, however, is not clear, and I imagine it's quite difficult in a one-bed flat with no outside space.
So back to my original question. Judging by my own family, the vast majority of home test kits end up going straight to landfill, positive or negative - and possibly a good amount of waste from the test centres, too. As do the vast majority of disposable face masks, despite the hundreds I've seen lying in the street and scattered about the countryside over the past year and a half, because I guess these visible masks are only the tip of the maskberg... remember that word! You read it here first.
In fact, there are reports on this growing environmental disaster that claim around 56 million face masks are heading to landfill EVERY DAY, and apparently it takes 450 years for a single mask to decompose. And that's before you even start on the potentially hazardous components of the test kits, of which the UK Government mentions future availability of 300 million per month, or 10 million per day, most of these no doubt heading to landfill too. If this so-called pandemic continues much longer, we will all be drowning in a sea of potentially hazardous waste that may (or may not) contain a dangerous virus that shut down the entire world for two years, but will almost certainly contain a vast number of other bugs equally capable of killing a vulnerable person. Is this really the best way to protect our children? In the future, would you want to live in a new house built on a partially-decomposed maskberg?
Fortunately, people are starting to recognise the ongoing problem, and at least thinking about recycling some of this pandemic waste. The best thing for our planet, of course, would be to reduce the number of masks and test kits being disposed of in the first place. Dare I suggest allowing most people to go about their daily lives without having to wear a mask? Or charging for test kits to help cover recycling costs, hence reducing demand for some non-essential tests? Or - simplest of all - (shock horror!) ending the Emergency Coronavirus Act altogether, and declaring this particular pandemic over... at least before the next one comes along and bites us in the behind? Let's hope that 2022 restores some sanity to the world, and the spectre of a now 3-year-old coronavirus is soon a distant memory!
Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers.
Her latest novel is an action-packed adventure set in Ancient Rome under the rule of the mad Emperor Caligula. If you know a young (or older) reader who enjoys chariot racing and gladiator fights with real tigers, this is the book you've been waiting for!
Download the ebook of "The Horse Who Would Be Emperor" this January for
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