Inside an Anacortes home, a 3D printer whirs, drawing thin layers of orange plastic in the shape of the palm of a hand.
Chris Moriarty holds up an example of the finished product — a robotic-looking prosthetic hand, which will go to a kid in need free of charge.
People all over the world are making 3D printed prosthetic limbs, which are cheaper and easier to produce than traditional prosthetics, Moriarty said. But Chris and wife Laura are doing something that’s never been done before — printing hands using plastic removed from the ocean.
That’s the goal of the Million Waves Project, which launched on Earth Day this year. Now, the couple, along with three other Anacortes residents, are working toward printing their first prosthetic hand out of ocean plastic, which will go to a 9-year-old girl in Seattle.
Two ideas in one
Moriarty said a YouTube video last year first introduced him to 3D printing of prosthetic limbs. He had also been researching the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of trash in the Pacific Ocean about twice the size of Texas.
One night this spring, he put two and two together.
“Doesn’t that make sense? Take something deplorable and turn it into something amazing?” said Moriarty, a business consultant. “The reality was I had no background in 3D printing, and I knew nothing about where to get ocean plastic.”
So they bought a 3D printer and joined Enabling the Future, an online community where people share open-source designs for prosthetic limbs.
“From a global perspective, everyone has so many versions of these hands. Everyone shares them,” he said. “By and large, it was a really easy thing to get into.”
They also teamed up with three locals, including orthopedic surgeon Jonathan Shafer and Registered Nurse Jodi Shafer, who are contributing medical expertise, and Brian Tottenham, who is focusing on environmental impact.
“It came together surprisingly fast,” Moriarty said.
Sourcing the plastic has been the most difficult part, said Laura Moriarty, who runs a marketing and content agency from their home.
There aren’t many companies in the U.S. that turn raw ocean plastic into a 3D printer-ready filament, and shipping from places such as Australia and Europe is expensive, she said.
So the nonprofit has created its own partnerships with several organizations.
First, they are teaming up with Washington CoastSavers, a nonprofit that removes thousands of pounds of trash each year from Washington’s coast. Once the couple upgrades to a commercial shredder (they’ve been using a conventional paper shredder), they intend to process the plastic by the ton.
They also found a Vermont company called Filabot that turns plastics into the colorful spools of filament that feed into 3D printers.
As they figure that out, the nonprofit is raising money for other volunteers printing hands for kids around the world. They’ve funded kits— which include the nonplastic fingertip grippers, wire and screws — to assemble hands for children in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Philippines.
“We are not in the business of turning kids away that need limbs just because our plastic isn’t ready yet,” Laura Moriarty said.
The whole process, from printing a hand to shipping it, costs about $45.
Nine-year-old Abbey from Seattle will be the first to receive a hand made from reclaimed ocean trash.
Melissa Vaux McPherren, Abbey’s mom, said her daughter is a “super star athlete” and had never wanted a prosthetic hand until her family told her about the project.
“The prospect of using (the hand) to lift weights really excited her, and helping other children who need (prosthetics) and helping the ocean as well,” she said.
Abbey attends a group at Seattle Children’s Hospital where she mentors other children with limb deficiencies, Vaux McPherren said.
“After talking to (Abbey) and learning about the things she does, it helps out parents and young kids,” she said.
The right fit
Some kids want a colorful or movie-themed hand, others one for swimming, and some just to have something there, said Chris Moriarty.
While 3D limbs may not be as durable or long-lasting as traditional prosthetics, they are lightweight and customizable, he said.
“The number one threat to these things is that (kids) are going to grow out of them,” he said.
Shafer, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in arms and hands, said the project was right up his alley.
In many developing countries, access to prosthetic is nonexistent, he said.
“It’s easy to provide them (a 3D printed hand),” Shafer said. “You can modify it based on level of amputation and what they need it for.”
Getting the hand doesn’t require a trip to the doctor’s office, either. If the child has internet access, they can send pictures of their limb using a 3D scanner on a provided iPad, he said.
“If you have the right info, you can print it out,” he said. “Something so simple can have a huge impact on someone’s life.”
The learning curve has been steep, especially for fit and comfort, say Laura and Chris Moriarty. But they aren’t discouraged and have even started a second ocean-related project — 3D-printing coral reefs. The artificial reefs mimic the texture of real ones and are added to the ocean to address the coral bleaching crisis.
“That’d be the dream,” Chris Moriarty said.