The environmental impacts of different mask options for healthcare settings in the UK

Elsevier, Sustainable Production and Consumption, Volume 33, September 2022
Chau C., Paulillo A., Ho J., Bowen R., La Porta A., Lettieri P.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, different strategies emerged to combat shortages of certified face masks used in the healthcare sector. These strategies included increasing production from the original manufacturing sites, commissioning new production facilities locally, exploring and allowing the reuse of single-use face masks via various decontamination methods, and developing reusable mask alternatives that meet the health and safety requirements set out in European Standards. In this article, we quantify and evaluate the life-cycle environmental impacts of selected mask options available for use by healthcare workers in the UK, with the objective of supporting decision- and policy-making. We investigate alternatives to traditional single-use face masks like surgical masks and respirators (or FFP3 masks), including cloth masks decontaminated in washing machines; FFP3 masks decontaminated via vapour hydrogen peroxide, and rigid half masks cleaned with antibacterial wipes. Our analysis demonstrates that: (1) the reuse options analysed are environmentally preferential to the traditional “use then dispose” of masks; (2) the environmental benefits increase with the number of reuses; and (3) the manufacturing location and the material composition of the masks have great influence over the life-cycle environmental impacts of each mask use option, in particular for single-use options.