Ana Toepel, Green Impact, May 2020
3D-Printed Face Shields: UCSF Creates a Sustainable Solution for Shortages
Image Credit: UCSF Makers Lab
Beyond the obvious challenges for the medical community posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been both an increase in medical waste and a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). It hasn’t been an easy time to prioritize sustainability, but UCSF is finding creative ways to meet PPE needs while keeping waste reduction and its zero waste goals in mind.
Currently, UCSF hospitals require 300+ face shields per day, but manufacturers haven’t been able to keep up with demands for PPE. The shortage of face shields inspired UCSF Clinical Technologies to explore the possibility of having the UCSF Library Makers Lab produce them using 3D printing. A model and workflow were designed then approved by UCSF departments—and now the 3D-Printed Face Shield Project is in full swing, with all of the 3D printers in the UCSF library being run continuously to create more than 300 face shields daily. The shields are being used at UCSF in the emergency department, the ICU and COVID floors. UCSF’s Dr. Alexis Dang, one of the project leads, says that “bringing the production in-house gets the devices to the frontlines faster, allows for the security of our supply, and enables clinically-driven changes and innovation.”
Not only does this project enable 3D printing to fill the gap in the supply chain, it also takes into account the importance of making the process and products as sustainable as possible. Plastic filament is the main material needed for 3D prints. Originally the shields were being printed on PLA, a plant-based plastic that is technically biodegradable but in reality problematic because it doesn’t break down fast enough to meet the standards of composting facilities—and it ends up being landfill waste. The project worked hard to find a source for PETG, a form of PET plastic specifically for 3D printing, and now the shields are being printed on this more comfortable, chemically-resistant, and recyclable plastic. Though the face shields can be cleaned and reused, both the shield and the headband portion can be put into the recycling bin when their use is exhausted.
To make the project even more sustainable, the Makers Lab has an initiative to “close the loop” on the printing process by shredding 3D prints into pellets and using an extruder to make them into filament for new 3D prints. The Lab has been saving all of its plastic filament waste since opening in 2016, which they are shredding now in the library to use to create new filament in the near future. UCSF has invested in equipment to make this happen; now the Makers Lab needs to carry out some further research and development and secure additional funding to make recycling an integral part of the process and do it at the scale required. As Dr. Dang shares, “It’s exciting that we could provide a local, closed-loop, sustainable system for 3D printing here at UCSF.”