Triple Bottom Line: USC coronavirus testing processes earns three stars

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While it has given the environment a chance to breathe in many ways, the sad reality of the pandemic is that we’ve had no choice but to turn to single-use plastics as a means of minimizing the spread of the coronavirus. From panic-buying plastic water bottles and surgical masks to stocking up on bottles of hand sanitizer and wipes, people’s priorities have shifted from sustainability to disposability in an effort to keep themselves healthy. 

Picking up food to-go means plastic bags and utensils, and many grocery stores have only started allowing people to bring in their own bags recently. As shoppers avoided brick-and-mortar stores, Amazon has sent out more individually-wrapped products in cardboard packaging than ever before, even hiring 100,000 extra workers during the height of the pandemic to keep up with the high demand. 

Although vaccine rollout is now progressing and restrictions are slowly lifting, there’s one part of the pandemic that isn’t going away soon, especially for college students. 

As we come full circle and reenter the month of March, most people have likely taken a coronavirus test by now. For those of us living on or near USC’s campus, tests are as ingrained into our weekly routine as picking up groceries, as we have to complete two per week just to go on campus. 

For student population testing, USC uses PCR coronavirus tests, which detect for the genetic material of the virus in a nasal swab or saliva sample. Results are returned in about 24 hours and yield more reliable info than rapid antigen tests. Last semester, the procedure was a simple nose swab, but this spring, USC Student Health and the Keck School of Medicine switched to saliva testing to expand testing capacity.  

For my USC readers who haven’t yet subjected themselves to one of these tests, let me enlighten you with a detailed but scientifically vague description. 

While the nose swab test wasn’t the most comfortable feeling, it was quick, painless and left me feeling like I was on the verge of a sneeze for a minute or two. The saliva test, which I had foolishly assumed was a cheek swab (spoiler — it is NOT!), is less straightforward, albeit arguably the most minimally invasive coronavirus procedure proven effective. 

Once students arrive at a testing site, they are given a plastic test tube, miniature funnel and plastic straw. The theory is that chewing on the straw will release saliva, which is then spit through the funnel into the tube. 

The reality is several minutes of sitting in distantly-spaced rows of chairs, covertly trying to fill your tube with spit without making excessively awkward eye contact with those spitting around you and then presenting your saliva-filled tube for examination. 

Sometimes, a student health employee will inform you that your spit is too bubbly or the tube is not quite full enough, and you are sent back to your seat of shame armed with a new plastic funnel and straw to fill your tube with a higher quality saliva. 

Especially with the new option of dropping off a completed saliva test, USC is relying on students to follow the procedure of no eating or drinking 30 minutes prior to taking the test, as well as assuming that students who are dropping off samples are turning in testable saliva. 

I hate to leave a negative review, but the functionality of this new testing system is not only more wasteful but less effective than the previous. 

The disorganization and high testing population accountability not only leads to the generation of more waste but also more inconclusive tests. I get regularly tested twice a week for the sole purpose of hammocking on campus, and I’ve received inconclusive results via the saliva test multiple times, whereas last semester, I never received anything but an accurate test result.

If USC is anticipating any semblance of a full return to campus in the fall, it’s more than likely that student population testing will be mandatory to track outbreaks. While I would hazard a guess that the new system is cheaper (saliva testing requires fewer enzymes and chemicals needed to process samples) and removes the need for outsourcing to other testing companies, Keck and Student Health need to consider how best to streamline testing services for the coming summer and fall months to cut costs, time and waste. 

To those of you who have stuck with me through my Yelp-like review of USC’s current testing setup, take my words with a grain of salt. While its current mode of PCR testing needs significant work, USC has taken coronavirus seriously, with its strange PR campaign (i.e. the banners hanging from the light posts on campus) to its ramped-up testing efforts. 

Requiring students to visit campus to get tested twice a week takes time, money and resources. Still, the Engemann Student Health Center makes the process as easy and inexcusable as possible for students living in the University Parkarea.

I’ve become accustomed to seeing those blue disposable masks mixed in with the litter on the street in Los Angeles, and every time I sit down to take another test, I wince at the amount of plastic going into the trash. 

While, unfortunately, and understandably, waste generation must take a backseat to public health during a global pandemic, it’s still something worth considering when we have the luxury to do so. 

As more of the public receive vaccinations and the world regains some semblance of normalcy, perhaps now is the time for scientists, doctors and institutions like USC to consider how to streamline still-mandatory coronavirus testing procedures, minimizing waste when they can while still getting accurate and reliable results. 

Many environmentalists argue that the coronavirus is single-handedly reversing the global momentum we’ve created in cutting down on single-use plastics. 

The plastic bag ban in California grocery stores was temporarily lifted, and I’ll admit that I’ve contributed more than my usual share of takeout containers and empty iced coffee cups in the past year. During the best of times, the economic feasibility of recycling was nowhere near where it should have been. Even now, with an onslaught of single-use plastics weighing down on recycling facilities, recycling programs have been suspended, and many items are not being accepted as collection points try to protect their workers and freelance recyclers from potential virus exposure. 

In addition to the increase in single-use waste, any and all waste from hospitals, testing and vaccination sites is considered a contaminated biohazard and sent straight to a hazardous waste facility to be incinerated.

There isn’t a feasible alternative to this scenario right now, and I would be foolish to suggest otherwise. The irony is that our hyper hygiene has only created more waste in the environment to clean up later. However, the current situation should be an opportunity for reflection. It all comes back to a topic that I, personally, love to hate: capitalism. The value of recyclable materials and plastics needs to be higher — otherwise, there is simply no incentive to put in the effort of recycling single-use materials. 

This turning point in our society should be a prime opportunity to invest in more effective waste disposal and recycling mechanisms — studies suggest that worldwide, only about 10% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled.  

Ultimately, the solution lies beyond single-use and disposable products, as we need to be looking toward a future of biodegradable, compostable, renewable and sustainable production materials. Consumption patterns of 2020 and 2021 is a behavior shift that needs to be temporary; once we’ve moved past this period, we need to make up for lost ground and lost time, and reduce the grasp that plastics and petrochemicals have on our lives and the environment.

Montana Denton is a junior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.