The Newest, Dumbest E-Waste Is Pee-Waste

Woman's hands holding a pregnancy test strip
Photo by Marco Verch / CC

It is a truth universally acknowledged—by manufacturers—that an analog consumer product must be in want of electronics. Yes, even if you pee on that product.

Pregnancy tests are dead simple. Every manufacturer uses pretty much the same simple system: pee on stick, wait for chemical interactions, see a positive or negative result. They’re all the same product, which is why taglines such as “No test is more accurate” are true, because they’re literally all the same accuracy level. 

So how does a manufacturer differentiate their pee stick? Pregnancy tests are a massive, growing, self-perpetuating market. Pregnancy anxiety is real, whether hoping or dreading, leading some to take a half-dozen (or more!) tests to be sure of a result. Enter the “digital” pregnancy test.

When most people consider the “digital” version of some utility product, they assume it’s a serious upgrade. Digital watches are easier to read than mechanical ones, keep time with tremendous accuracy, and add some cool features. Ditto digital thermometers, pressure gauges, and thermostats. But pregnancy tests in their analog form aren’t confusing or inaccurate. They’re black and white: the box assures you that even a faint positive should be read as a positive. So what exactly is the benefit of a digital pregnancy test? Turns out there aren’t any—just the drawbacks of yet more circuit boards in our waste stream.

Some teardowns on Twitter revealed that the inner workings of a so-called digital test are just a little gadget reading a normal paper test strip for you. A standard pregnancy test has a control line, and if positive, displays a second line. “Digital” tests shine some tiny lights on the test strip. If a second (positive) line exists, it will block the light from reaching a photosensor, so the system will display a positive result, i.e. the word “Pregnant.” What used to be a simple combo of plastic and pee-catching-substrate now has a built-in battery, a PCB with LEDs and sensors, and an LCD. That’s e-waste, folks.

After you get a result, what do you do? For the average American, that probably means chucking it into the bathroom trash, which becomes the curbside trash, which adds to the e-waste epidemic. If you want to do your part to limit the e-waste issues that plague the world, you’re stuck with a pee-soaked guilt machine. Do you take it to your local e-waste recycler—if it’s even open—or over to the e-waste bin at Best Buy? Not only is your reproductive history something you’d usually like to keep private, recyclers are probably not super stoked to knowingly handle urine. Do you want to take apart your pee stick yourself to extract that tiny coin battery? Let us know how it went, and how you fit that into your weekend.

All of these options stink, except one: skip the digital tests and vote with your wallet. Non-digital tests are just as fast and accurate, and have the bonus of being better for the environment. And don’t worry, someone has already installed Doom on a digital test, so we know there’s nothing more secretly useful inside.