3D Printing a Solution to the Major Waste Disposal Crisis in Samoa

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eight_col_Lionel_Taito-MatamuaDesign student Lionel Taito-Matamua is a problem-solver and an award-winner. The New Zealander who studies design at Wellington’s Victoria University traveled to Samoa recently and made an observation while there about that Pacific Island nation’s waste serious waste management problem. His observation flourished into a project involving 3D printing, with far-reaching consequences for the plastic refuse crisis in the Pacific Islands–and most certainly beyond.

Samoa and other lower-lying small islands in the atoll of Micronesia have been the most seriously affected in terms of the growing problem of waste disposal–particularly in the more populous areas like the Samoan capital, Apia. Where once waste was typically “natural” and could reenter the ecosystem as, say, compost or food for animals, the problem with disposing of non-biodegradable waste has become since the late 1990s a serious matter and threat to the environment. At one point, according the Guardian, because so much of the garbage was simply being dumped into the sea, Tarawa, an island further north and west of Samoa, was forced to issue a ban on the consumption of seafood. On many of the Pacific Islands, probably not surprisingly, the preservation of the fresh-water supply is critical to daily living and many of these islands have faced serious crises as the potential for contamination of drinking water has risen.

Map of the Pacific Islands, Wiki Maps.

Taito-Matamua, who had traveled to Samoa to attend his grandmother’s funeral, turned an altogether difficult experience into something positive. He returned to school in New Zealand and determined to write his Master’s thesis about Samoa’s serious environmental crisis. His thesis wasn’t, however, just about making observations; it was about looking for solutions. He was concerned, in particular, according to an article he co-wrote with Simon Fraser called, “Renewing Materials: 3D Printing and Distributed Recycling Disrupting Samoa’s Plastic Waste Stream,” with “marine plastic debris.” He referred to what had been dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” by scientists back in the 1980s, the growing problem of waste disposal in the mostly small Pacific Islands with the problem predicted to become a serious environmental crisis by, well, 2015. And it is.

Enter Taito-Matamua and 3D printing.

“It just sort of came to me,” he recalled, “in terms of ‘why can’t we just get some waste plastics and potentially transform that into material that we can 3D print with.’ So we found that the education system could benefit from 3D printing in terms of Pacific Island students being kinesthetic learners. So having something to touch.”

In other words, the enterprising young student realized that a significant portion of the plastic waste that was creating the environmental crisis, could be repurposed “via a range of design research methods.” Taito-Matamua posited that processes like “plastic shredding and filament extrusion” could be employed to redirect plastic waste to be used as 3D printing filament for a variety of “3D printed end products.”

The project, which is still mostly theoretical and not yet implemented, envisions expanding the use of 3D printing as a means of putting the recycled plastic to good use. For instance, Taito-Matamua suggests that the new recycling ethos could be applied to Samoa’s traditional gifting culture or “mea alofa,” which springs from a traditional notion of hospitality. Converting the culture of handcrafting items for gifting and for tourist souvenirs would be just one way in which the otherwise problematic plastic could be repurposed.

“We don’t have any systems in Samoa to recycle plastic. It all ends up in landfills, the oceans or it’s burnt,” Taito-Matamua said. “Throughout my thesis, my idea was to use 3D printing in a way that could benefit the local community or other isolated areas that don’t have recycling systems in place. Not necessarily coming up with whole solutions, but to help reduce the problem.”

The corpse of a bird tangled with marine refuse in the Midway Atoll, north of Samoa, from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Photo: Midway atoll, bird corpse. Photo: © Chris Jordan. See the website Coastal Care: https://coastalcare.org/2009/11/plastic-pollution/

The corpse of a bird tangled with marine refuse in the Midway Atoll, north of Samoa, from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
[Photo: Midway atoll, bird corpse, by Chris Jordan]

Taito-Matamua also proposed involving Samoan schools in the repurposing project. “Schools in Samoa are an important link in developing a viable ecosystem of (re)making,” he wrote. He foresees 3D design and printing as critical tools not only in the repurposing of plastic waste, but in the economic development of Samoa. His ideas concerning the Maker Movement, in particular, are quite striking.

Of course, there’s more to the young student’s proposal (see the slides here), ideas for which he was acknowledged with an “Innovation in Sustainability & Cleantech” award at the 2015 New Zealand Innovators Awards (NZIA), which we heard about briefly last week. According to the NZIA’s website, the awards have “helped organisations across many industry sectors get connected to a wide range of partners, multinational organisations and private investors,” so no doubt the thesis and the award are just the beginning for Taito-Matamua.

Discuss this story in the Samoa Waste Disposal forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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