Sharon To is co-founder and CTO of Closed Loop Plastics and our Women in 3D Printing Guest #267! 

Sharon, could you let us know briefly about your background and your journey into Additive Manufacturing?

I started out my college career in computer engineering, so I really had no major connection to 3D printing or plastics. I remember vaguely hearing about it and thinking it was some far-out technology, but never thought I’d get a chance to be exposed to it (and then be really exposed to it) until I met my soon-to-be fellow Closed Loop Plastics co-founders, Aldrin Lupisan and Will Amos, during our time as undergraduates at the University of California, Irvine. 

It was then that I was introduced to the wonderful world of 3D printing! When I joined the Speculative Prototyping Lab at UC Irvine, the team was already in the midst of working on an initial version of an off-grid plastic recycling system, and I came along to help automate the process. So the interesting part for me is that I actually got more involved with 3D printing starting from the filament side (recycling and extruding it) rather than the actual printing side, as that came later on when we ran a 3D printer farm of 42 printers for various art installations. 

What is Closed Loop Plastics and what is the story behind it?

Closed Loop Plastics is an innovative plastic recycler that aims to divert post-consumer plastic waste on its way to landfill, and give it new life as structural 3D printing filament. What started off as an initiative to reduce the plastic waste that was being generated purely by 3D printing, transformed into a much larger dream of actually cleaning up our environment and essentially banishing the idea of “single-use” plastics.

We believe that plastic is an amazing resource if used and disposed of wisely, and want to make it easier for everyone to play their part. 

Aside from simply recycling plastics, our larger goal is to fundamentally overhaul our country’s current recycling infrastructure. As it stands today, a lot of waste is being mishandled and the process itself is considerably resource-intensive. With our goal of a decentralized recycling infrastructure, we want to give regions the ability to recycle their own plastics, resulting in a larger volume of recycling and a reduced carbon footprint, since waste will no longer need to travel across the world in order to complete the recycling process. 

To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?

My greatest achievement in additive manufacturing would have to be the work that the Closed Loop Plastics team and I have accomplished in successfully creating our first full kilogram spool of upcycled post-consumer HIPS filament! As a team, we faced so many challenges getting our facility up and running and processing the materials to create filament of the best quality. 

Witnessing our progress from our modest desktop setup when we were overjoyed by our ability to create even a 0.25kg spool of upcycled filament in a day, to our industrial-scale pilot facility where we can now reliably extrude 1kg in under an hour, has been one of the greatest joys of my work at CLP.

Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company or your career to share with us?

I still remember the insurmountable joy I had when we actually 3D printed a cup using our U-HIPS filament…made from cups! It’s such a small thing that on the surface doesn’t really mean much since it’s just one of the many objects we’ve printed to test our filament. But without those signature red plastic cups, my team and I would not have Closed Loop Plastics and would not have embarked on this journey together. So printing a cup with our filament for the first time was just a wonderful and fun way to bring us back full circle.

Have you run into any challenges from being a woman 3D Printing?

As the only female at Closed Loop Plastics, I feel extremely fortunate that my co-founders and peers support me 100% and I have never treated me differently for being female or otherwise. Our neverending dialogue amongst us is never weighted towards any one person more than the other, allowing all of us to have an equal say.

However, in a number of encounters at conferences or in meetings early on, my presence and my input has been gleaned over by others in favor of my male peers. While it was initially discouraging, my colleagues have been extremely supportive of me and continue to assist me in managing these types of situations. What I love about my team is the harmony with which we collectively recognize microaggressions directed towards me to be able to navigate the conversation so my perspective is respected. As I continue to grow in this space, the encouragement from my colleagues and their acknowledgment that being a female in this space is tougher has been all the motivation I need to continue advocating for myself and other women, and continue to make our voices heard.

What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?

I’ve never been as blown away by the 3D printing community as I was when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and I saw makers left and right banding together to print PPE for frontline workers.

It was amazing to see how quickly and effectively we all pooled together our resources –  from designing models and printing visors, to managing the logistics of getting them to those who needed it – in order to help protect our community in the best ways we can. 

What advice do you have for women looking to get started in 3D Printing?

Just do it! As with all life choices, we’ll never know what comes of them until we give it a try. When I was first introduced to 3D printing, I was so amazed by what it could do, but honestly never saw myself even picking it up as a hobby, let alone running a company that produces filament for it out of plastic waste! My journey with 3D printing and with Closed Loop Plastics has been such an unexpected one that I would never have had if I didn’t just give it a try. 

In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with Additive Manufacturing?

I think one of the best ways to encourage more women to explore additive manufacturing would be to showcase and highlight more women who are in the field. Continuing to provide examples of career paths that are available to us could inspire more women to give it a try. I also believe that mentorship could play a significant role in unifying women in our field so that we could support each other in this space. 

Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about? 

My team and I have a couple of major things coming down the pipeline!

We’re currently experimenting with filament pigmentation and are so thrilled at the progress we’re making. We’re hoping that another awesome color joins our Party Pink line very soon! 

We’re also in the midst of setting up a new extrusion line, which will enable us to process not just more plastic, but more plastic types as well like PLA and ABS. 

And finally, we are so excited to launch our plastic recycling program! We know that makerspaces, labs, and businesses all over the country have an issue of collecting plastic waste without having a clear and effective way to dispose of it. So we’re looking forward to helping organizations solve this problem and working with them to create more sustainable businesses in this space.

Favorite 3D tool? 

 Rhinoceros 3D

Favorite moment in your day job?

Watching our dynamic control system maintain our filament’s diameter during extrusion 

What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years?

Quieter 3D printing 

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