Reusable face masks help protect health and the planet

By Phil Crawford

The sound of sewing machines hard at work can be heard around Aotearoa due to a boom in the production of reusable face masks.

The surge in demand started earlier this month when the Ministry of Health recommended that Kiwis should be prepared to combat community transmission of Covid-19 by having a supply of masks for each household member.

While stressing the strategy to protect New Zealand against the virus is based on border protection, testing, contact tracing and other public health measures, the ministry says face coverings are an extra protective physical barrier to help keep people safe.

Kiwis have responded using whatever they can lay their hands on, including innovative ideas using underwear and even socks – both great examples of repurposing materials.

One of the advantages of fabric masks is that they can be washed and used repeatedly. That’s a much better option than a disposable mask which can get thrown out after a single use.

“Moving to reuse rather than single use is a key aspect of a more circular economy and we are seeing that happening across other everyday items such as bags and coffee cups. It makes complete sense to ensure reuse is part of the ‘new-normal’ impact of Covid,” says James Griffin, General Manager Projects and Advisory at the Sustainable Business Network.

“It’s also inspiring to see companies that are considering sustainability and the full life cycle, including end of life, of the materials they’re using.”

These are good principles to keep in mind if you’re making your own masks. Check out the World Health Organisation website for tips on how to sew a three layer fabric mask along with advice on when and how to use a mask.

We talked to four organisations in our network that are making masks. Three are working to capacity to meet demand and in some cases are expanding operations during this surge. Prior to the original lockdown in March none of them had been making masks. They stressed they weren’t in it for the money, rather they were doing their bit to help New Zealand. All are focused on zero waste and providing jobs.

Munch Cupboard

Munch Cupboard makes eco-friendly and ethically made products for the home with an emphasis on providing alternatives to plastics. The company was a finalist at the 2018 NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards. Beeswax lunch wraps have become one of Munch Cupboard’s most popular items since the company started in 2013. However, right now they’re taking a back seat due to an “explosion of orders” for reusable facemasks says founder Anna Bordignon.

The team started making their Good Facemask design during the first lockdown to keep their sewing team employed. At that time they were producing about 3000 a week and many large retailers began stocking their masks. Now that target has increased to 7000 a week. To help meet the demand for masks the organisation has opened two new sites and is taking on extra staff to help with customer service, manufacturing and dispatch. Masks retail for $24.99 and are available at several supermarkets and retail stores across the country or online directly from Munch – but there is a temporary stop on online orders while they catch up on the backlog.

The masks are made by a team of people around New Zealand who work from home. They use New Zealand designed fabric and locally produced elastic, nose pieces and webbing tape. Each mask comes with a replaceable 3 layer filter and has surgical ties to hold it closer to the face although it’s a versatile design with elastic ear loops as well so people can choose how they wear it to fit their face.

Anna says producing masks has been made easier due to a collegial approach by everyone involved.

“It’s not a competitive environment as there are simply not enough makers in New Zealand. We’re all sharing resources and materials.

“We want our masks to be affordable to all. We have priced them so that we as a company are taking a minimal profit, paying our workers fairly and keeping it affordable for New Zealanders.”

Throughout its marketing and distribution channels Munch Cupboard emphasises the importance of using masks correctly for them to be effective. It also promotes the message that basic hygiene measures are the most important way to stop the spread of infections.

Little Yellow Bird

Little Yellow Bird won the Supreme award at the 2019 NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards and produces ethically and sustainably made 100% organic cotton and merino uniforms, corporate wear and basics. It also added masks to its catalogue during the first lockdown and was receiving a few hundred orders a week. Fast forward to the current lockdown and founder Samantha Jones says demand is now “completely on another level” with 5000 masks produced in just the last week.

Like Munch Cupboard they made an early decision to temporarily stop online orders so they could catch up on the backlog. They’ve also increased capacity. Online orders are now open again but there’s a daily limit to keep demand at a manageable level as they also supply a range of retailers.

The masks they produce are part of the Lanaco community face mask initiative. They’re made of 100% organic cotton and come with a replaceable filter and nose wire.

“Our masks have been rigorously tested and we opted for around the neck elastics to ensure a good seal. We also recognised that this style was a more accessible option for those with glasses or hearing aids and easier for children to use.”

To date the masks have been made with scrap material or fabrics from samples and seconds with elastics knitted in Levin. Any scraps go into Little Yellow Bird’s recycling project making these locally made and zero waste masks. Once the wearer has finished with the mask the cotton material can be cut up and composted.

“Our masks are $35, including the filter, and support not only our local fashion community but they have also funded more than 20,000 meals to workers in India through our Meals for Migrants Partnership.”

The ReCreators

Auckland social enterprise The ReCreators are the newcomers when it comes to making reusable masks. During the first lockdown they made designs for masks freely available on their website.

This time around it’s a very different story, says Founder and Director Geraldine Tew. Last week The Recreators made the decision to start producing masks and the team of six has been working fulltime to keep up with the growing demand.

Most of the orders are coming from Auckland, but there’s also interest from around the country. That includes a mix of bulk orders from businesses and custom orders from the public.

With a focus on upcycling and sustainability the masks are made from linen or cotton diverted from waste. Much of that material has come from the West Auckland Resource Centre which collects offcuts from garment and textile businesses. A number of fashion labels have also made direct donations of materials.

Geraldine says setting a price for the masks has been challenging. They currently sell for $15 but that price may be increased as “our charges are not representative of the work performed to fulfill orders”.

“We are doing this work with zero waste in mind as we help make reusable masks available to as many people as possible.”

Booker Spalding

Booker Spalding has been manufacturing clothing for New Zealand and Australian businesses since 1923. The Wellington-based company specialises in bespoke corporate uniforms and workwear.

CEO John Maurice says that during the first lockdown the company looked at all the options for masks as “we didn’t want to put something on the market unless it was appropriate”.

With the investigation and subsequent design phases already completed they were ready to hit the production button when the demand became obvious earlier this month with enquiries “increasing by the day”.

John says the company stocks masks made locally and from its offshore manufacturers. The New Zealand team is currently making about 1000 masks a week. That number can be easily scaled up or down along with overseas supplies.

Some of the sewing is done in-house and the rest is undertaken by a home-based workforce. Initial production has used end of line fabrics – cotton or cotton blend. More materials are being sourced to help keep up with production.

“Our masks are washable, reusable and are designed and made to be around for a long time,” says John.

The company sells two masks through its retail outlet The Uniform Centre. A two-layer mask sells for $12.48 and a three-layer mask sells for $19.95. An activated carbon filter turns the three-layer mask into eight levels of protection. Corporate clients can buy masks from the Booker Spalding website.