Plastic and 3D printing, two allies in times of pandemic



The irony is that, until recently, plastics in some quarters was being considered the scourge of the earth, from a sustainability perspective. But the need to find ways to contain the spread of the virus and to both serve patients and protect healthcare workers and others has served to underscore the very properties that help to make plastics so vital to society – including its ability to promote hygiene while being highly disposable. 


After first paralyzing China, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is now testing the very fabric of societies worldwide. It is challenging governments, companies and individuals alike, while reinforcing the key role played by plastics and polymers in keeping people safe and healthy.


Single-use plastics play key role

Some government bodies, including in the U.S. states of New York and Maine, have stopped eco-driven plans to implement bans on single-used plastics such as retail shopping bags, as they are less likely to spread germs than frequently reused fabric carriers. Others have un-banned expanded polystyrene food containers, as they are unquestionably effective as packages for take-out and home-delivery food from restaurants.


Meantime, the demand for certain types of plastic-intensive products is soaring. This includes housings and parts for medical gear such as respirators and ventilators, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers such as masks, gowns, and goggles. And as hospitals and clinics in some areas struggle to keep up with the patient influx, other standard medical products continue to help the cause – from polycarbonate syringes and IV components, to PVC medical tubing and blood bags.


3D printing to the rescue

Additive manufacturing has a vital role to play, as well. Recently, an Italian 3D printing start-up called Issinova jumped into action, reverse-engineered a valve for a ventilator machine, and within hours was able to produce replacements for out-of-stock valves that helped to save the lives of several people in a hospital in Brescia. Local news reports said the company used a filament extrusion process and several Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) machines to 3D print a plastic valve at a cost of about $1 per part. The original part costs about $11,000, according to the report. Others see additional opportunities to use 3D printing to produce critical, in-demand medical components in the face of ongoing parts shortages.


In Wisconsin, meanwhile, a U.S. plastics publication recently reported, PET sheet manufacturers, 3D printers and packaging companies are joining forces to turn out clear plastic face shields that are badly needed in the University of Wisconsin health system.


It surely is true that sustainability-related challenges remain as regards plastics waste, and the resultant issue of ocean plastics, but there can be no denying the good that plastics plays every day, but particularly now during the current pandemic crisis.


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