Plastic is a versatile and game-changing material. It’s used in everything from gloves to spacecraft and is found in every country on earth. Unfortunately, its versatility is also its major point of concern.
After the plastic has served its purpose, it usually ends up in a landfill or contaminating the environment. Some goes into the recycling bins, but most of that is still not sorted and recycled properly. Sadly, millions of tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year.
Recycled plastic has very promising applications as a material for manufacturing, and is one of the more effective ways of tacking a surplus of waste plastic – when done right. The issues that plastic recycling faces are mainly in the cost of supply and lack of demand.
Thankfully, there are many applications for recycled plastics, including 3D printing, which we’re going to look into shortly. First though, some context.
In 2017, plastic production reached 348 million metric tons, and it’s expected to double this figure by 2040. More than 8 Billion tons of plastic have been manufactured, with the US producing more waste plastic than any other nation by far, with over two-thirds of this plastic remaining in the environment still.
As part of the breakdown of waste plastic, a recently-understood phenomenon has emerged: microplastics. These tiny fragments of waste plastic have infiltrated our livestock, our water supplies, and even our crops. Microplastics have now been found in our blood. They’re a product of the breakdown of plastic waste and can be a serious threat to our health.
An increased awareness of the issue of waste plastic is necessary in order to tackle the growing problem of microplastics and the potential toxicity associated with them. One approach to this issue is to dramatically reduce the plastic we buy – especially single-use plastics. To tackle the plastic already in our waste sector, another approach is in recycling plastic waste.
The plastic waste issue is not something to be taken lightly. Yet, plastic recycling rates in the US remain at only around 9%. This is looking to get better with time, but it’s a slow process and with the market for primary plastics still strong, recycling waste plastic remains economically difficult.
In order for our impact to be noticeable, changes have to happen on an industry level. That means not simply running our lives with a conscious awareness of recycling, but forming our companies around it too.
Due to its collecting and sorting requirements, recycled plastic is still more expensive to produce than primary plastic, meaning that both manufacturers and the general public shy away from that additional cost.
Low demand like this slows down the development of more efficient processes and economies of scale that would bring down the price of recycled plastic and increase the capacity to produce it.
And that’s a shame because recycled plastic has a vast range of applications in the modern world. Many recycled substitutes are even superior to their traditional counterparts. Here are a few examples.
Uses for Recycled Plastic
Recycled plastics are being used by some of the largest manufacturers in the world. In 2019, Adidas made 11,000 pairs of shoes from recycled materials.
With an estimated 20% of waste plastic coming from the fishing industry, recycling fishing nets into something valuable is a growing area of attention.
With an increased awareness of the issue, more consumers are valuing the use of recycled plastic in their products. For the 3D printing industry, this opportunity is just becoming apparent.
3D Printer Recycled Plastic
3D printing is one of the industries that can contribute to the demand for recyclables. Much of the plastic that’s thrown away today can be melted down into filament for printing, and the industry itself is on the cusp of public acceptance and awareness, making it perfect for bringing awareness to, and marketing, recycled plastic initiatives.
Whether It’s converting coffee stirrers to chandeliers, or fishnets to chairs, the applications for 3d printing and plastic waste seem very promising. With a recycled plastic 3D printer, it’s possible to make new plastic items directly from old plastic waste, reducing the demand for primary plastics and contributing to the culture of recycled plastic uses.
There are numerous types of plastic that can be repurposed for 3D printing filament. And there is a growing number of organizations working towards making use of them.
Mogens Hinge, associate professor at the Department of Engineering at Aarhus University in Denmark, suggests there’s not much of a difference between primary and recycled plastics in terms of their applications in 3D printing.
In terms of the environmental economy, reusing waste plastic seems like a no-brainer for the 3D printing industry if the scale can increase to make it economically viable, and viability is getting closer than ever.
The ease of converting recycled plastic to the filament is less of an issue with modern methods of granulating, compounding, and spooling. As such, there is a growing list of companies that are making 3D printing filament from plastic waste. PET filament is one of the most popular.
One of the most common plastics used in food packaging is Polyethylene terephthalate,
Or PET. This plastic is commonly recycled and very useful in 3D printing. Since it’s used in food packing, it’s useful in 3D printing applications that may come in contact with food.
PET is relatively firm and has a good level of chemical resistance, which means it doesn’t leech dangerous chemicals into its contents. It is 100% recyclable and can be worked with for 3D printing at temperatures between 70 and 90ºC.
One other benefit of printing with PET is that it doesn’t release any odors. Recycled PET or rPET is, therefore, a great option for 3D printing that covers a lot of bases.
Mixed plastics, typically deemed “nonrecyclable,” have enormous potential in 3D printing. They are more sustainable and more cost-effective than using rPET or other types of plastic.
One of the companies leading the research, development, and production of mixed plastic pellets is Arqlite. Arqlite’s 100% recycled plastic polymer blend, called “Smart Gravel,” has a multitude of uses – one of them is in 3D printing. This is a green alternative to primary plastics that can be easily purchased in bulk super sacks or online in bags as small as 1 gallon.
Arqlite Smart Gravel is made from 100% recycled food packaging, helping to prevent plastic waste from ever reaching the landfill.
Switching to recycled plastics may not appear to be the most cost-effective way forward for many, but for those who are environmentally conscious, replacing primary plastics is an important way to increase demand for recycling at the same time as cutting back on the environmental impact of various industries.
By using recycled plastic where possible, many companies are avoiding supply chain deficits, reducing their associated emissions, and in many cases, saving costs.
However, perhaps the most important aspect of reusing plastics is to drive the demand for more of it. Ultimately increasing the scale of recycling and paving the way forward for a reduction in the damaging effects of plastic waste in general.
With a recycled plastic 3D printer, it’s possible to make lasting use of waste plastic, reducing the impact on our oceans, our environment, and our health.