Milk Cartons Get Second Life as 3D Printed Bench in Tuscany

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As one of Italy’s “città d’arte”’ (or art towns), Lucca is encircled by its intact Renaissance-era city walls and a highly preserved historical center that makes this Tuscany location one of the most beautiful in northern Italy. Labeled the “land of princes and poets,” Lucca’s charm is the substance of century-old stories. Now thanks to a new 3D printing project, the old meets the new, as a team of architects, engineers and designers have installed a one-of-a-kind bench printed with recycled plastic from milk cartons and other similar container plastics.

Adorning the landscape of this traditional city, the 3D printed bench is much more than what it seems. Not only is it a symbol of the potential of 3D printing technology but a testament to what can be achieved with upcycled materials. Furthermore, this project, which is called Urban Safety Everyday or USE, is the result of a master’s thesis by architect Giulia Del Grande and her collaboration with R3direct, a local startup that designs and 3D prints furniture; Lucart, one of Europe’s largest producer of machine glazed paper for flexible packaging; and the city of Lucca.

A 3D printed public furniture with recycled plastic installed in Italian city of Lucca.

3D printed public furniture with recycled plastic was installed in the Italian city of Lucca. Image courtesy of R3direct.

Inaugurated in time for world recycling day on March 18, 2022, the 3D printed public furniture has a functional feel as it can seat up to four people but maintains the town’s local charm thanks to its central arrangement of flowers on both sides. On top of that, the original purpose of the furniture is to cleverly disguise traffic blockades (otherwise known as “Jersey barriers”) that are used to keep cars in their lanes and prevent car bombs and other terrorist threats.

Italy has stepped up security in recent years, installing concrete barriers between pedestrian areas and motor vehicle traffic in many cities. The USE is the first prototype of a bench that slides on top of the barrier, and since it was installed in the city’s historic center, it has already become part of the everyday life of its residents.

Concrete barriers hidden under a bench

In a social media post on LinkedIn, Del Grande explains that “the project aims to provide functionality and integration in the context to the elements that are related to safety management and that are commonly installed during events or exhibitions.”

The USE is made from 3,300 Tetra Pak beverage cartons sourced at the Lucart paper mill in the city and then recycled to create a material for 3D printing. Even though Tetra Pak is a recyclable material, it is not the easiest to repurpose. Separating the plastic, paper, and aluminum layers require specialized plants and processes. Luckily, Lucart’s mills process beverage cartons by separating cellulose fibers from polymers and aluminum, which can then be reused as raw material for manufacturing.

A 3D printed public furniture with recycled plastic installed in Italian city of Lucca.

3D printed public furniture with recycled plastic was installed in the Italian city of Lucca. Image courtesy of R3direct.

Once the plastic was recovered from the processing of the beverage cartons, R3direct used 3D printing technology to transform it into an innovative bench that “coats” and hides the shatterproof concrete barrier in Lucca’s historical center.

USE designer and co-founder of R3direct, Stefano Giovacchini, said this local circular economy project could become an example for global actions. However, this is not a new concept for Giovacchini, who has been focused on a mission to recover post-consumer plastic and use it to make beautiful and durable objects.

Specializing in product design and 3D printing throughout his entire career, Giovacchini created a startup that would leverage the technology to develop flexible, economical, and scalable solutions. The results are objects like USE, precious, durable, and sustainable. Products that could become what the company describes as “icons of a contemporary concept of value and luxury.”

According to R3direct, the team was the first in Europe to use this material for 3D printing. Still, the result has been so good that the town has already commissioned and plans to install more 3D printed benches just like USE to cover other bollards and serve as seating during city events.

A 3D printed public furniture with recycled plastic installed in Italian city of Lucca.

3D printed public furniture with recycled plastic was installed in the Italian city of Lucca. Image courtesy of R3direct.

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