For a couple of years, my husband had what I jokingly referred to as a “computer graveyard” in the basement of our house. Our old college computers were down there, those mammoth desktop beasts taking up all sorts of valuable shelf space, along with a dilapidated box of dusty cords and a printer or two. Eventually, when I needed the shelf space (I may have too many Halloween decorations), I told him that unless he planned on doing something with all of the old computers ASAP, they had to go, and off to the recycling facility they went. Had I known then what I know now, we could have tried to build our own 3D printer out of those old parts! It seems that e-waste 3D printers are popping up all over the place these days. In Australia, a north Queensland recycling center and two e-Hubs are not only helping locals recycle their old electronic equipment, they’re providing jobs for people at the same time.
A few months ago, e-Hub Mackay and e-Hub Sarina opened their doors to people who wanted to dispose of old equipment like printers and scanners in an environmentally responsible way. The e-Hubs are reincarnating these devices, and carrying out a dream to produce 3D printers. According to Startup Mackay, any repairable computers have the hard drives wiped, and are then refurbished and sold, or donated to charity. If the computers can’t be saved, the two facilities will disassemble them and “harvest salvageable parts for building things,” like 3D printers.
Project supervisor Frank Mason said that while the centers do help with waste, they also provide a place for people to learn the kinds of skills that could assist them in future stable employment in the tech industry.
“We are running this as a social enterprise, utilising some people that are on the work for the dole program, basically giving them a reason to get out of bed. They’re pulling them apart into their components – the steel, the plastic, the electronic components – and sorting them out, to work out whether it’s possible to re-use these parts. Things like motors, things like rods, things like wiring boards, we’re looking at how we might use them. And one of the ideas we’ve got is to turn it into a 3D printer,” Mason explained.
He said that, with the exceptions of the controller and extruder, a basic 3D printer can be created from just “a couple of office copiers and some bespoke parts.” What’s actually sort of funny is that existing 3D printers are used to help finish these e-waste 3D printers!
He said people often consider this kind of work to be a job ‘of the future,’ and not a current job, but that this is not the case. There are valuable skills to be learned doing this type of work, and we all know that 3D printers are here to stay. 23-year-old Jesse Arnold of Mackay came across this project after he’d been unemployed for almost a year. He was educated and had experience working with forklifts, warehousing, and transport logistics, but said that the work had “sort of dried up” in those fields. Then he heard about the recycling centers and the two e-Hubs.
Mason said, “You need the 3D printers to make some of the parts, so the plastic turns into filament, and then to make some of the components that hold the printer together. The 3D printer will help make the next 3D printer.”
Arnold said, “One day we’ll come in and work with the plastic pieces, and other days we’ll work with the wiring and the motors and stuff, to get it all running. I never understood wiring and never thought I’d feel safe working with any of that stuff, but I’m slowly learning how to solder.”
He hopes that the valuable experience and skills he’s learned will help him re-enter the workforce soon, and find a job where he can give back, and use his newly learned tech skills.
The project has enjoyed great success so far – in its first two weeks alone, the Mackay e-Hub collected over three metric tons of printers that workers were able able to save from the landfill, and disassemble for recycling. Mason says that their goal is to ultimately eliminate ten metric tons of landfill. According to an ABC Tropical News story posted to the Mackay e-Hub Facebook page, they are able to build one 3D printer out of e-waste a week. As if this feel-good story couldn’t get any better, these 3D printers will also be donated to local schools, who will be able to use the equipment to further the children’s education about electronics.
“It gives me the experience to get out and do something for the day and be a part of giving back to the community. Considering that I’m learning the skills and the knowledge, I can take that further and hopefully put it to use somewhere else,” said Arnold.
Mason said, “In the old days you used to do wood work, metal work and dress-making. Well what about 3D printing, coding, making your own filament? What a great exercise to teach people how they’re made.”
According to the Mackay e-Hub Facebook page, they are also creating some unique artwork from the e-waste, using toner ink to paint and building statues from the steel frames of photocopiers. Discuss in the e-Hub forum at 3DPB.com.[Source/Images: ABC Tropical North]