Plastic waste in the oceans and in landfills all over the world has been recognized as a huge problem in urgent need of a solution. Joshua M. Pearce, Associate Professor for Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan Technological University, is working on several methods that could reduce the amount of plastic produced from petroleum while fostering creativity and distributed manufacturing. His approach: Using recycled plastic (do-it-yourself-style) for 3D printing at home and in communities.
Pearce interest stems from his work with the Recyclebot, an open-source hardware device for converting plastic waste into filament for open-source 3D printers like the RepRap. At first, he and the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group at Michigan Tech looked at the economical savings that 3D printing with recycled plastic from milk jugs and other recycled containers could bring.
“But we wanted to make sure we were not suggesting a path that was more environmentally destructive than conventional recycling”, he says. “As it turns out distributed recycling is better for the wallet and the environment.” The energy savings amounted to between 3 % and 80 %, depending on whether the recycling was done locally or in distance locations that required transportation.
The economical benefits provide an additional incentive. “Everyone that has been 3D printing for a while knows how fast you go through filament”, says Pearce. Instead of spending 40-60 USD on a kilogram of filament, several commercialized recyclebots allow users to make their own filament for less than a dollar per kilo. The Plastic Bank has released the open source designs for a recyclebot that is powerful enough to be used on a small industrial or on a neighborhood scale. Even better: The Plastic Bank provides the recyclebots to impoverished communities all over the world so that they can turn plastic waste into a valuable commodity they can sell, thus improving their own social situation.
This will, in the long term, not only help reduce the amount of plastic that is produced from petroleum, it will also address the growing problem of plastic pollution on land and in the oceans. “Much of the world’s ocean plastic starts on land in developing countries. The Plastic Bank’s waste plastic exchange system will help prevent ocean bound plastic waste from being dumped into the rivers and waterways by making it too valuable to throw away”, reads a statement on The Plastic Bank’s website.
From a technology standpoint, this is viable: “We have tested some ocean plastic sent to us from the Plastic Bank. It was primarily HDPE and printed really well”, says Pearce. “If such ocean plastic is accepted in the market as a substitute for conventional filament — it will look like the beaches clean themselves as waste pickers scour them clean to make money.”
While waste picking is a very hard way to make a living, it provides the economical basis for more than 15 million people in developing nations worldwide. They often live in the poorest and most disadvantaged regions of the world and work under horrible conditions. Pearce is very aware of the problems associated with using recycled plastic from these communities even if the economic and environmental advantages are clear. “If the people laboring to collect the waste plastic are treated as slaves we have not made any real progress”, he says. This is why he supports and works with the Ethical Filament Foundation that develops Fair Trade standards for recycled filament. Pearce has also been collaborating on several projects with the non-profit TechforTrade, which is the driving force behind Ethical Filament.
The standard includes provisions such as no child labor, reasonable working hours, no forced labor, health and safety standards, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment provisions and the freedom of association and collective bargaining. “Fair Trade standards in this context are meant to help ensure the people doing the bulk of the labor get to share in some of the benefits of improved technology”, says Pearce. The benefit for 3D printers in the Western world: They get to use good quality filament made in fair conditions while cleaning up the environment – all for competitive prices.
One of the first producers of Ethical Filament is Protoprint, a social enterprise in India that is producing filament for 3D printers. Wholesale and individual customers can already place an interest for Fair Trade Filament on Protoprint’s website. Their work has not gone unnoticed: Protoprint has been honored with an award at the MIT Ideas competition. More companies that produce Ethical Filament and are supported by the Ethical Filament Foundation will follow. And if the trend continues, it won’t be long before filament from recycled plastic produced under fair conditions will be available in large quantitis for the new group of creative people who use 3D printers at home or in their businesses.