Reusable Facemasks Trial 

Alexis Percival, Environmental and Sustainability Manager for the Yorkshire Ambulance Service, describes a trial of reusable facemasks.

Why are you trialling reusable facemasks? 

During the pandemic, the NHS has shipped, used and disposed of over three quarters of a billion facemasks and this number continues to rise on a daily basis. This figure is now 1.4 billion facemasks! For example, every day many hospitals are using between 10,000 and 100,000 facemasks, and ambulance services are using 10,000 to 20,000.  

The carbon impact of reusable masks is dramatic, with transport to the UK being the highest source of emissions from single use masks. 

What is the aim of this pilot? 

The aim of this pilot is to ensure a green and sustainable way in which our organisations can continue to protect staff and the public through reducing reliance on single use facemasks, specifically Type IIR facemasks.   

This project provides a blueprint for procurement in a Greener NHS.  

How was the trial organised? 

Paramedics, clinical, admin, doctors, infection prevention and control (IPC) leads and other staff from 50 healthcare organisations participated within their health care settings.  

Facemasks supplied by accredited and certified British manufacturers and suppliers were trialled. Some were face coverings working towards becoming Type IIR accreditation, others have Type IIR accreditation. Some of the facemasks have viral coating.  

What was assessed during the trial? 

Breathability, wearability, comfort, traceability and washing were taken into account. Participants also assessed the circumstances that they wore the masks, how safe they felt in them and their useability.  

The different Trusts from hospitals to ambulance services, community hospitals to GPs, mapped where they can use the masks and how they can be used in those healthcare settings. Participants also assessed how the masks could be washed within and external to their Trust (home washing).  

Were any national organisations involved? 

This project has interlinked with NHS England/Improvement Green PPE Cell, NHS Supply Chain, and regional personal protection equipment (PPE) procurement networks. The National IPC body is also involved and we will be working to develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for implementation in all healthcare settings, decontamination processes and trigger points for using reusable facemasks.  

How much waste is eliminated through the use of reusable facemasks? 

The waste generated by PPE has increased dramatically and has become a national issue. A cost benefit analysis compared the whole life cost of a single use face mask versus a reusable facemask which was used between 30 and 50 times before being recycled. Over and above this, the viral coated masks provide more options for the facemasks to be utilised over longer periods. 

What is the implication for financial expenditure?

Financial savings can be made. For example, through not procuring the masks as well as reducing the cost of the waste disposal (between £400 and £1000 per tonne) and ancillary staff time for bag removal. 

What difficulties need to be overcome? 

Several challenges were identified and need to be overcome in order to get the reusable facemasks into use within the NHS. For example, challenges include CE marking, accreditation, traceability and UK manufacture. Washing instructions are required in facemasks, and there are standards to be met. For example, around details of temperature, number of washes, ironing and the processes for washing masks internally and externally to organisations.  

Product recycling at the end of life remains a challenge although there are some circular economy processes that we are looking to implement. 

How does the project help us to move towards a low carbon future? 

The feedback through this project has led to a greater understanding of how these products can be used in healthcare setting, the barriers to implementation and the process to implementation in various healthcare settings.  

All users within the pilots have wanted to adopt multiple use facemasks instead of the single use products and are keen to progress this project as soon as measures are in place to support the transition.