Is Recycled 3D Printer Filament the Key to Sustainable Development?


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Could recycled 3D printer filament be the key to sustainable development? Material extrusion 3D printers are low-cost and useful for creating dimensionally accurate, tough plastic objects made of PLA, PETG, ABS, ASA, TPU, and many more materials. This material is available for around $10 to $50 a kilo, while the granulate that these filaments are made from is available for between $2 and $10 a kilo. Consequently, making your own filament has been an ongoing development within the 3D printing community. Lower-cost filament would allow the community to produce far more items, increasing the utility of 3D printers and 3D printing as a technology. Simultaneously, there has been a desire to make 3D printing more environmentally friendly. Efforts include grinding up and recycling misprints, leftover filament strands, and unwanted 3D prints into filament. Others have explored converting water bottles, industrial waste, and other waste streams into filament. Such developments could significantly accelerate the adoption of 3D printing.

In austere areas or the developing world, environmental and cost concerns are equally pressing, but additional considerations arise. Often, emerging economies lack local filament production, making imported filament more expensive due to shipping costs from countries like the Netherlands and Germany. Emerging economies frequently face high import tariffs, with some countries levying 40% or even 100% tariffs on 3D printing materials. The absence of trade deals or well-established trading relationships and volumes further increases costs. Delivery may also be intermittent or delayed due to higher instances of package loss or customs delays. Additionally, purchasing power in developing countries is lower, making filament prohibitively expensive compared to developed nations, where it is much more affordable.

How is 3D Printing Useful for Sustainable Development?

The 3Devo Recycling system with an Ultimaker.

With 3D printing, one can manufacture items faster, iterate designs more quickly, and enhance products more efficiently than with other technologies. In urgent situations or when emerging needs arise, a 3D printer can produce the required part more quickly and at lower cost than alternative technologies. If circumstances change, a new design can be implemented easily. 3D printing is a digital technology, allowing for the creation of a repository of files by top engineers or volunteers worldwide, with these designs being sharable. For example, Jennifer, who works at Airbus, could design a solar panel holder in her free time. Her world-leading expertise could result in an advanced object. Her CAD file could then be made accessible to anyone with a 3D printer. Additionally, a global community could edit and improve it based on local feedback, a process that is more challenging or impossible with the designs used in many conventional manufacturing technologies.

Contemporary desktop 3D printers are inexpensive, starting at around $180. Currently, printers priced at about $1000 can reliably and repeatably produce designs. However, an experienced operator can produce well-made objects even from the simplest of 3D printers. Operating a printer is relatively easy, and training people to use 3D printers is straightforward. Yield rates vary significantly with 3D printers and materials, with prints failing anywhere from 40% to 10% of the time, a factor that must be considered. Nevertheless, even with filament costing $40 a kilo, many useful objects can be produced for as little as ten cents to a few dollars each. For any sustainable development challenge, if a part can solve that problem, then 3D printing is a cost-effective solution.

Why is 3D Printing Useful for Sustainable Development?

Loudspeaker made with recycled household waste. Image courtesy of Made Research.

Often in developing countries, particularly in remote rural areas, the lack of capital, infrastructure, and legal protections means that poverty is not merely financial. People are legally impoverished in the sense that what little they possess can be taken away without any recourse. They also lack access to essential resources like drinking water and lighting at night, amenities often taken for granted elsewhere. Providing a community with a tractor might seem beneficial, but often, they lack the parts and skills necessary to maintain it. Frequently, it is the absence of access to tools, spare parts, and relatively simple components that hinders development efforts.

3D printers could be a cost-effective method for local communities to access libraries of useful objects to help them progress, build new tools, and maintain their surroundings. Rather than merely providing objects, we could empower these communities with the ability to produce what they need. This is the unique aspect of 3D printing: it allows those in the affected areas to potentially design their own solutions to their problems with greater immediacy, efficacy, and accuracy than solutions devised by people in air-conditioned offices thousands of miles away.

What Is Happening in Filament Recycling?

For years, development of simple but unreliable desktop filament recyclers has been ongoing. However, there has not yet been an inexpensive breakthrough filament recycling product that has sold in the thousands, let alone in the millions. Much of the research in this area has been conducted by Michigan Technological University, including a literature review on the subject and work by Joshua Pearce on recycling, distributed recycling, and life cycle analysis of HDPE recycling. Other researchers have investigated the mechanical properties of recycled ABS and other materials. To create filament, you cannot rely solely on recycled material; approximately 30% virgin material must be added. Additionally, while a part can be recycled multiple times, its mechanical properties will degrade with each cycle, requiring different recycling approaches depending on the use case. Other studies have focused on the development of grinders and other necessary equipment, while some have explored how recycling could significantly reduce emissions.

Companies such as Filabot and 3Devo are actively marketing filament extrusion and recycling equipment, and the community initiative Precious Plastic serves as a marketplace for recycling equipment and goods.

What Needs to Happen for 3D Printing & Filament to Become More Prevalent in Sustainable Development?

3D printers will need to be both inexpensive and robust to be effective in more austere environments. Although some machines have been designed for these challenging conditions, they have not yet gained widespread popularity. Similarly, filament grinders and makers must be robust and affordable to function well in remote locations. Additionally, libraries of recipes and instructions must become accessible so that local individuals can receive training and use the appropriate filaments, polymers, and practices.

Students, engineers, and the 3D printing community will need to be motivated to design parts specifically for sustainable development. Moreover, it is crucial for them to receive feedback on their efforts from those in the developing world to ensure relevance and effectiveness. Overall, no miracles are needed for 3D printer filament, filament recycling, and 3D printing to play a more useful and pivotal role in sustainable development. We are simply waiting for the right individual or organization to motivate everyone to take the right actions.

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