For the past year, NHS trusts around the country have been running equipment amnesties, urging local residents to return aids when they no longer need them.
An equipment shortage combined with reducing budgets has seen NHS services appealing for the return of valued crutches, toilet raisers, commodes and wheelchairs.
The movement is gathering momentum but it is surrounded by a fair amount of scepticism, with many people claiming some NHS trusts have refused equipment because it is cheaper to buy new items.
One grassroots project however, wants to go further and is aiming to change how people think about old equipment and ensure that none of it goes to waste.
Concerned about the sheer amount and cost of scrapped equipment, Paula Massey, who runs UMT Upcycling and Mobility Training, has accumulated more than £16,000 of mobility aids in her garden.
Through donations from the public and care homes, Massey has acquired almost 1,000 pieces of equipment in her garden and has a small unit containing more.
Through her not-for-profit organisation, Massey cleans, refurbishes and resells equipment at a discount price. She also upcycles unusable equipment and turns it into garden furniture like flower beds.
Massey has been running her initiative for the last three years and has struggled against consistent set-backs but recently things have taken off and interest has surged.
Public awareness around equipment shortages and shrinking NHS budgets has helped to drive interest in her initiative, while care groups and authorities are also starting to become more involved.
There remains, however, significant opposition in the mobility industry and Massey wants to overcome the barriers in this sector and team up with businesses.
She describes how the feedback from mobility dealers has generally been very negative, while some authorities have been difficult to encourage on-board.
So far, Massey has only piloted the scheme in a small corner of South East Wales, but she hopes that more businesses will show an environmental conscience and willingness to relieve NHS services and help deprived end-users.
“I haven’t tried any other region yet because I didn’t want to run before I could walk because of the volume of equipment,” Massey says. “It’s never been about making money, it’s about the environment and giving work to individuals who need it.
“I’ve managed to collect a huge amount of equipment in a short space of time and now people are starting to notice.”
So far, storage has been one of the main challenges Massey has faced. She says that having a container unit is crucial to being able to address the problem of equipment wastage.
Although her garden holds hundreds of items, it is simply not logistically feasible to run a larger operation without proper facilities. She says that if she had a workshop, the equipment in her garden would already have been made new and pumped back into the community or sent to a third world country.
“In the meantime, we would be taking the equipment apart and seeing what’s good and what’s bad. The idea is to give out volunteer positions initially. We know we’ve got a structure there for volunteer work, especially with ex-military personnel.
“The hope is to get these people in and to help them get work knowledge, experience and life skills they can take forward. We’d really like a space where we can have the storage, workshop with workstations. The equipment can then be done out.”
On the face of it, Massey’s model makes sense. The initiative is designed to offer support to ex-servicemen and women while reducing the pressure on the NHS and helping people without the money to purchase new equipment to access much-needed aids.
Nevertheless, Massey explains that she has had significant resistance from mobility businesses: “I can understand retailers not wanting me to sell the equipment in case it impacts on their sales.
“But at the end of the day, we should be recycling and we shouldn’t be buying new all the time. If there’s a wonky wheel on a walking frame, if we can replace that wheel and everything else is fine, why can’t that be used?”
She continues: “You’ve got people in deprived areas who may not have the money to go into a mobility shop and buy something brand new. So those people will never actually go into a mobility shop anyway. It’s not like recycling equipment is stopping the sale.
“[Dealers] may see me as a threat. I’m not a threat. I’m just trying to help the people who can’t afford to walk through [a mobility shop’s] doors. The customers would otherwise be going online to buy something for less which might be the wrong size or unsuitable for their needs. If they don’t have the money, the first place they’re going to go is online. This has got to be tackled.”
Some retailers Massey has approached have explained that people sometimes turn up at their door with equipment they want to give away. But few dealers have storage for such equipment and have to tell customers to just scrap the items.
Her message to distributors in such a scenario is not to turn equipment away. Massey urges: “Don’t let that happen anymore because I can take it away. If it’s privately bought, I will take it and I will find it a new home. I’m going to be doing a trusted assessor’s course soon so when I give out equipment I know I’m giving people the correct product and information.”
As far as Massey is concerned, the mobility sector has a duty to communities and the environment to be open to initiatives such as equipment recycling. While there are some dealers who already fully embrace such schemes and plenty who would be open to partnerships, there remains a number of sceptics.
For Massey, it is just a matter of time before authorities take more direct action to tackle what some view as an equipment crisis. Perhaps now is the time for mobility retailers to start opening up to talks and considering how they can broaden their own services to better help their local communities.
NHS ‘turning equipment away’ as recycling costs mount
Despite country-wide equipment amnesties by NHS trusts to claw back desperately-needed mobility aids, there are concerns that such efforts may be just for show.
The public is increasingly aware of the correlation between shrinking NHS budgets and a shortage of items such as crutches, wheelchairs and commodes. But Paula Massey, founder of UMT Upcycling and Mobility Training, is sceptical of some local amnesties.
She explains: “If I rang a hospital or joint services to come and pick something up, they generally won’t do it. A set of crutches is £5 to the NHS but for them to collect it and clean them it works out as £25. It’s £9 to collect and £16 to clean and it’s just not cost-effective as it’s cheaper to buy new.”
Paula Massey will be a keynote speaker at the AMP Awards on Monday 21 October.