The theme for this year’s World Environment Day on June 5 focuses on finding practical solutions to the issue of plastic pollution. According to a 2021 UN report, without meaningful action, aquatic ecosystems across the world will be inundated with nearly 29 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2040.

Joining the campaign to beat plastic pollution and as a part of the Climate and Health campaign across the University of Edinburgh, we are profiling the outstanding and timely research that students, staff, and critical stakeholders are carrying out in the intersecting spheres of climate and health. The Medical Waste Project, led by Dr Alice Street – supported by the EU Funded DiaDev Project and funded by the European Research Council – is one of them.

People at a public rubbish dump pick through the medical waste.

Research and innovation in medical and life sciences have manifold social, cultural, and economic benefits. However, such research often contributes to environmental pollution and damage through increased use of energy and the production of harmful medical waste – issues that the Covid-19 pandemic has since exacerbated.

Since October 2022, the Edinburgh Earth Initiative has been working with Dr Alice Street – Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology – on the Medical Waste and Sustainability project. This project is a short-term undertaking that deals with regulation and manufacturing around single-use plastics in medical diagnostics.

The project’s primary focus is on mapping the interest in medical waste across The University of Edinburgh through organising internal stakeholder meetings, summarising the University’s research and other activities around medical waste and sustainable diagnostics for external audiences, aiding in the development of research grant proposals on medical waste, and undertaking research into the variation in the plastic footprint of the WHO-approved Covid-19 lateral flow devices. One of the main goals of this project is to produce an insightful research paper of around 3000-5000 words on the theme of regulation and manufacturing of single-use plastics in medical diagnostics, accompanied by a complete reference list of sources. This is a significant undertaking, as single-use diagnostic devices have become a commonplace and critical part of the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Their indispensability notwithstanding, their design’s unsustainability renders their disposal a significant threat to the surroundings.

Further, in collaboration with the Edinburgh Earth Initiative, the project has created a platform for connecting scholars working across the natural, physical, social, and medical sciences – demonstrating research and development in sustainable diagnostics as one of The University’s key strengths. Two Advanced Earth Fellows – Sophie Scrimgeour and Marie Louise Wöhrle – have assisted Dr Street in the project in varying capacities. Sophie’s role has revolved around illustrating evidence gaps in current literature and mapping stakeholders in medical sustainability in the UK, both within the University and outside it. Additionally, Sophie has composed an exhaustive bibliography, cataloguing the references used across the Medical Waste and Sustainability project. Marie’s abiding interest in material culture and archaeological training greatly inform her role within the project. She has weighed and dismantled COVID tests to understand how they have been manufactured and analysed how different countries manage their test waste products.