When 3D printing meets plastic recycling …
Today, 300 million tons of plastic are produced each and every year worldwide, including more than 60 in Europe, where packaging accounts for the vast majority of single use plastic. Where does it go and how can it be used in 3D printing?
Back in the 1960s, plastic was a real revolution for just about every sector (from building, automotive and electronics, to aeronautics and, in particular, food and drink). For example, packaging helped improve food safety by effectively preventing any external contamination.
Today, 300 million tons of plastic are produced each and every year worldwide, including more than 60 in Europe, where packaging accounts for the vast majority of single use plastic (sometimes only used for a few hours at most). Plastic is so prevalent in our environment now that it’s used as a stratigraphic marker of the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dating from the commencement of damage to the environment caused by human activity. In the environment, plastic degrades over 100 to 200 years into micro- and then nano-particles, eventually spreading into all living organisms. This is set to produce massive effects from the end of the 21st century onwards and it is still difficult to assess the health implications of the presence of such particles throughout the food chain.
What happens to all this plastic waste?
Today, it’s estimated only 10% of plastic waste is recycled, of which 2% is done in a closed circuit (meaning plastic that is recovered to produce other usable materials, such as new plastic, without degradation). 35-50% is dispersed into the environment unchecked, 20-40% is put into landfill, while 9-14% is incinerated.
But plastic is not a single material and there are several different types, though all are derived from petroleum. Only PET (polyethylene terephthalate) type bottles can comply with all the constraints of closed-loop recycling.
Where does 3D printing come in?
3D printing can be considered a greener form of manufacturing because it means you only consume the material you need. The basic principle involves superimposing layers of material through a heated or glued filament, for example. Many industry players now offer solutions that combine the benefits of 3D printing with recycling.
For example, Dutch start-up 3Devohas developed a machine capable of turning plastic waste into 3D-printable granules. It combines the capabilities of a grinder or chipper, capable of recycling 5.1 kg of plastic in one hour. In parallel with this system, another machine makes it possible to directly create the filament from the granules to feed the 3D printer.
Some manufacturers offer filaments made from old water bottles, ink cartridges, cups, even yoghurt pots.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, Dutch firm The New Rawhas introduced a new project entitled “Print Your City” in the Greek town of Thessaloniki. There, Hanth Public Park is now fully equipped with street furniture designed by 3D printers, all made out of 800 kg of plastic waste. In total, some 2,900 local residents were involved in the initiative to recycle their waste and participate in designing this “urban furniture”, including making decisions on models, colours, placements and functionality, which were all voted on.
Recycling projects are multiplying and diversifying, but let’s not forget that recycling itself requires a supply of energy, and most often involves material degradation. The majority of our plastic waste is still found in our environment and the best type of waste is one that isn’t produced in the first place. We simply need to find an effective way to reduce our consumption of plastics.